A strong second-half performance, lit up by the individual excellence of Sean Morrissey, saw Bennettsbridge end a 44-year wait for a place in the Kilkenny senior hurling championship final.
Morrissey helped himself to 2-5 as the Bridge, who last appeared in the senior decider in 1974, beat Clara to set up a meeting with either Ballyhale Shamrocks or Erin’s Own (Castlecomer).
In what was a close first half in Nowlan Park, Morrissey led the way with 1-2 for Bennettsbridge.
However, they couldn’t shake off Clara in a game where the sides were on level terms five times in the opening half hour.
Morrissey thought he had done enough to give his side a strong lead when he flicked Nicky Cleere’s 29th-minute free to the net, but two Chris Bolger frees had Clara all square soon after (1-9 to 1-9).
However, Bennettsbridge kicked on again, with the long-serving Brian Lannon picking off Kilkenny senior county man Liam Blanchfield’s raking pass before rattling the net.
James Bergin pulled a point back, but the goal was vital, as it gave Bennettsbridge room to breathe and the advantage at the break (2-9 to 1-10).
Both teams stepped on the gas in the second half, bursting into scoring life. Liam Blanchfield ended the run, grabbing the last score to help Bennettsbridge keep their noses in front (2-12 to 1-14).
The pressure was building, but Morrissey helped relieve it when he grabbed his second goal of the game with 41 minutes on the clock. The forward showed sharp reflexes, pouncing on the sliotar after a Cleere free had come back off a post, before firing in a low shot that crashed into the net via a deflection.
With Morrissey quick to add a point, Bennettsbridge strengthened their grip on the game. They got a little scare when Clara rallied, John Murphy grabbing a 46th-minute goal that brought the gap back to two (3-14 to 2-15), but with Morrissey and Nicky Cleere hitting a point apiece, Bennettsbridge held on to make the final.
Scorers for Bennettsbridge: S Morrissey (2-5); N Cleere (0-7); B Lannon (1-0); A Cleere (0-3); L Blanchfield (0-2); D Blanchfield, E Morrissey (0-1 each).
Scorers for Clara: J Bergin (0-7); C Bolger (0-6); J Murphy (1-2); J Nolan (1-0); L Ryan (0-2).
BENNETTSBRIDGE: E Cleere; C Murphy, R Lennon, C Wafer; E Morrissey, J Cleere, D Wafer; K Blanchfield, D Blanchfield; A Cleere, L Blanchfield, N Cleere; D Walsh, B Lannon, S Morrissey.
Sub: D Coyne for D. Walsh.
CLARA: K Phelan; P Bolger, S Prendergast, D Nolan; S O’Shea, C O’Shea, T Ryan; D Langton, L Ryan; J Byrne, J Murphy, J Nolan; J Bergin, C Bolger, P Nolan.
Subs: M O’Connell for T. Ryan, C Prendergast for J. Byrne, M Kenny for J. Nolan, S Quinlan for P. Nolan.
Erin’s Own book semi date with Ballyhale
A week after the sides finished all square, Erin’s Own booked their Kilkenny SHC semi-final berth at the second attempt when they beat James Stephens by 1-15 to 1-13.
A goal from county star Conor Fogarty gave Erin’s Own the lead by half-time (1-8 to 0-9).
David Walton led the charge for the city side, scoring a second-half goal as part of his overall tally of 1-7.
However, the Castlecomer men did enough to stay in front until the final whistle.
Elsewhere, Danesfort survived the relegation axe as a second-half scoring burst saw them retain their senior status, beating Carrickshock 0-19 to 2-9.
Six points without reply — all scored after they lost their main man Richie Hogan — helped them ensure top-flight hurling for 2019.
Having trailed by a point at the break (0-9 to 1-5), Carrickshock were just a single score behind again when Hogan was forced to leave the game after 42 minutes.
Momentum seemed to be with the John Tennyson-inspired Shock, but a burst of points from player/selector Paddy Hogan, Gary Tynan (0-2), the impressive Jack Bruton (0-2) and James Mullally saw Danesfort open up a lead they wouldn’t lose (0-19 to 1-9).
Carrickshock didn’t give up, gaining a glimmer of hope when Brian O’Donovan struck an injury-time goal, but they couldn’t get the scores to save themselves from dropping down to intermediate level next year.
It is their second time to suffer senior relegation in four years.