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Wednesday 28 September 2016

Banner are back - what of the Cats?

Allianz Hurling League semi-final: Clare 4-22 Kilkenny 2-19

Kilkenny’s Eoin Murphy, is challenged by Clare’s Podge Collins during their Allianz Hurling League Division 1 semi-final
Kilkenny’s Eoin Murphy, is challenged by Clare’s Podge Collins during their Allianz Hurling League Division 1 semi-final

It's a familiar mantra from a manager who has just witnessed a compelling performance from his team at the business end of the Allianz League, and Davy Fitzgerald didn't miss a trick yesterday. "This is April, like," he said, by way of deflecting any premature eulogies about a glorious second coming for the born-again Banner.

Maybe so, and maybe we'll all be sitting around a table with Brian Cody next September, reflecting on this "watershed defeat" being the catalyst for Kilkenny's latest Liam MacCarthy hat-trick.

Still, even if that proves the case, anyone in Semple Stadium yesterday cannot fail to have been impressed by the hunger, the sharpness, the sheer effervescence of Clare's hurling.

At times it was like rewinding the clock to 2013. Davy Fitz is right to say it's only April; but then Clare didn't appear so thrillingly in the zone last April ... or in either of the last two summers.

They had a roll call of heroes, from Cian Dillon as their defensive sweeper through the superlative Colm Galvin at midfield, and onto first half assassin Aaron Cunningham and Conor McGrath as the pick of an on-fire forward line. The only caveat? Kilkenny, their defence especially, has rarely looked so porous.

If this surprisingly one-sided NHL semi-final carried echoes of Clare in their 2013 pomp, a scary first half was more like the 2012 Leinster final revisited for Kilkenny's badly exposed rearguard. Okay, maybe it wasn't quite that scary, but Brian Cody will surely blanch at the concession of 3-12 in 35 minutes.

That left his team with an 11-point mountain to climb in the second half. At one stage thereafter, following a beguiling Tony Kelly brace of points with his first two touches of league hurling this spring, the gap even extended to a 13-point chasm.

The margin had been whittled down to nine points at the finish - a "fair reflection" of what had gone before, Cody later surmised.

Dousing

Meanwhile, Fitzgerald was left facing his toughest act of the day - dousing the hype ahead of their May 1 league final date with holders Waterford, whom they will then meet in Munster combat on June 5.

Cue his aforementioned "this is April" quote and an insistence that "we're not going to be fooled by today", although he then remarked: "There was one or two quotes used during the week that we used, that we might as well not turn up today - I thought it was very disrespectful. I don't think we're a bad team."

Media observers were a tad bemused about the identity of Clare's latest detractor(s), given they had entered the Thurles arena on the back of ten straight wins, four in the pre-season Munster SHL and six in the league before yesterday's magnificent seventh.

Asked for any one pre-match comment that particularly irked him, Fitzgerald replied "no" but added: "It was great motivation. I hope people keep saying it!"

Then, in an apparent reference to Ger Loughnane's depiction of Kilkenny as "functional beyond belief", the Clare boss continued: "I was reading stuff that was motivating Kilkenny when we didn't actually say it whatsoever as a unit. We would have massive respect and still have unbelievable respect for them.

"When you win back-to-back All-Irelands, you know that you're a serious, serious team and probably today will give them more motivation than anything. They're going to come back stronger than ever. But we'd love the opportunity to meet them later in the year, if it works out that way."

On this evidence, they have every chance. They never once trailed, and led all the way once Cunningham opened his personal account with a sixth minute point.

By half-time the Wolfe Tones flyer would have 2-3, all from play, in brackets after his name.

Alongside him in a two-pronged inside attack, John Conlon was using his strength to impressively disruptive - and destructive - effect, and it was his 15th minute goal that put Clare six up and on their merry way.

That said, All Star full-back Joey Holden but more especially 'keeper Eoin Murphy won't enjoy watching the DVD rerun of how they dealt with Galvin's speculative high ball ... with Murphy failing to clear his lines, a prostrate Conlon flicked home.

Two further goals followed in the next ten minutes, both from Cunningham. First, on 19 minutes, he cut inside Jackie Tyrrell to squeeze a shot inside the near post (perhaps the 'keeper could have saved that too); he then struck again with a poacher's pull after the Murphy-Holden axis was again unhinged by the mere presence of Conlon under another aerial bomb.

Kilkenny improved on the resumption, without ever threatening to usurp the earlier trend. TJ Reid, for once relatively curtailed in general play, gave them hope with a deflected 20m free that found the net. The deficit was subsequently cut to seven before Clare reignited with another 1-3 salvo, including a 50th minute goal (an unstoppable howitzer) from the excellent McGrath.

No one, though, was more consistently irrepressible than Galvin, who ran the show from midfield while chipping in with 0-5.

Jonjo Farrell launched another brief riposte with a fine catch and finish for Kilkenny's second goal, just after Kelly had announced his seasonal comeback off the bench with two instant points.

Afterwards, Fitzgerald waxed lyrical about Clare's "savage" workrate, adding: "Our hooks, blocks and tackles were way up. The lads played with savage pride and heart, I couldn't say enough about them."

That performance, he concluded, will make it "very hard to leave off lads" when some injured aces (including David McInerney, Shane O'Donnell and Conor Ryan) return.

Mainstays

Kilkenny were also down several mainstays through injury, notably Paul Murphy, Conor Fogarty and Fennelly brothers. But as Cody demurred: "It's not about who we were missing, it's about who we were playing."

Unlike his team, the Kilkenny supremo was giving little away. He had "no excuses"; surmised that "possibly" the first half goals were preventable; and, as for why the result was so comprehensive, he concluded: "Because they were much better than us - that's the only reason."

SCORERS - Clare: C McGrath 1-6 (2 '65s', 1f), A Cunningham 2-3, C Galvin 0-5, J Conlon 1-1, D Honan, T Kelly 0-2 each, D Reidy, P Collins, C O'Connell 0-1 each.

Kilkenny: TJ Reid 1-7 (1-6f), JJ Farrell 1-1, K Kelly, P Walsh, W Walsh, C Bolger 0-2 each, C Buckley, J Power, R Hogan 0-1 each.

CLARE: P Kelly; O O'Brien, P O'Connor, P Flanagan; C Dillon; C Cleary, B Bugler, D Fitzgerald; D Reidy, C Galvin; D Honan, C McGrath, P Collins; A Cunningham, J Conlon. Subs: T Kelly for Conlon (inj 51), C O'Connell for Honan 57, Colin Ryan for Reidy (64), A Shanagher for Cunningham (67), B Duggan for Collins (inj 70).

KILKENNY: E Murphy; J Tyrrell, J Holden, S Prendergast; P Walsh, K Joyce, C O'Shea; L Ryan, C Buckley; K Kelly, TJ Reid, W Walsh; J Power, JJ Farrell, R Hogan. Subs: B Kennedy for Tyrrell (inj 22), L Blanchfield for O'Shea (55), C Bolger for Kelly (64).

WIDES: Clare 4 (2+2); Kilkenny 10 (5+5).

YELLOW: Clare 1 (P Kelly 48); Kilkenny 1 (Hogan 57).

RED: 0

REF: F Horgan (Tipperary).

ATT: 20,481

MAN OF THE MATCH: Colm Galvin (Clare)

CLARE ........................................ 4-22

KILKENNY ................................... 2-19

ALLIANZ HL Div 1 semi-final

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