Clare did not turn chances into scores
You look at the second-half performance of Kilkenny here and you have to say they deserved to win. It was another exciting game with some great examples of hurling at its best but on the day Kilkenny just did enough to shade it.
Before this game I believed that Clare would have to win a number of key duels and control the Kilkenny forwards and for the first half they certainly did. Unfortunately for them, however, they couldn't keep it going through the second half and that gave Kilkenny every opportunity to come out on top.
Kilkenny certainly got off to the perfect start. A goal inside the first minute and then very quickly they started running at Clare, and completely upset their back line for the first 10 minutes. That forced Ger Loughnane to switch a few players around and only then did they got a grip on the Kilkenny forwards. Suddenly Clare began to close them down, and more importantly didn't let any Kilkenny men go past them, which had been so much part of Kilkenny's game in previous matches.
Still, that first goal was an unfortunate mistake by the Clare defence. They went up to catch the ball rather than bat it out and it was flicked into the net, a real opportunist goal. It got Kilkenny going; but it also forced Clare to get going that bit faster and suddenly they got on top of the game, pushing ahead 0-6 to 1-1 after about 16 minutes. All the time Kilkenny were playing against the breeze, although it didn't really look that way by the puck outs in that both side were equally long. It was one of those peculiar winds in Croke Park that blows all over the place and probably didn't play a big role.
Even though Clare clearly started to motor, they still had the problem of failing to convert their scores. It's easy in hindsight to say what should have been, but on three occasions Clare were through the Kilkenny defence and shot for goal when I felt a flick over the bar would have been better. At that stage a goal would have been a bonus and I believe in the saying that if you take your points the goals will come.
Instead they shot for goal even when under pressure. In one case David Forde kicked a ball and another time Alan Markham kicked it straight at the goalkeeper. Niall Gilligan's shot was well blocked by James McGarry but, still, that could have been three points over the bar.
If Clare had been that few points up then we could have seen a different second half. In my opinion they deserved to be a few points up, but if a team is dominating then they still must take their points. Instead Clare found themselves level.
In terms of those key duels I thought Sean McMahon came in ahead of John Power in the first half. Power wasn't able to break up the play the way the other forwards like and instead Clare closed them down.
Overall there were some brilliant displays by the Clare backs in the first half, with Brian Lohan having his best game this year and Frank Lohan well on his game as well. Liam Doyle was somewhat quiet but still very effective while Anthony Daly swept and cleared a lot of ball into the forwards. Still, up front they shot eight wides and another three shots at goal were missed, which was a big problem.
A lot of that was due to the great performance in the Kilkenny defence. Pat O'Neill did a great job at centre back; he is the old soldier and this was his chance to show that he can still play. Any time the ball came out from the sky he was up for it, clearing ball after ball and that gave great confidence to the rest of the team.
Both Canice Brennan and Philip Larkin did reasonably well also but my man of the match was Peter Barry in the half-back line. He won some outstanding balls by running and clearing them and really lifted his game here.
Brian Cody obviously had a few quiet words to the team as a whole at the break because he couldn't have been satisfied with the first half.
That meant quite a few changes in the second, and one of the first things I noticed was that Power started to win his duel with McMahon. Then we saw DJ prove once again that all he needs is just that one moment. He was picking up loose ball and finally got one of his trademark goals by taking the ball and blasting off at speed. Again it was Power that made it. Davy Fitzgerald made a great effort to save it but by the time he moved to his right it was hitting the net.
At that stage also the Kilkenny backs had almost completely closed down the Clare forwards. Yet they managed to sneak back a goal from Stephen McNamara. I was just writing down that his grandfather Jackie Power would have been proud when he scored the Clare goal. It was a real corner forward's type of a goal and very well taken but then he committed a late indiscretion, and having already got the yellow card he could only be sent off.
That clearly upset Clare as they certainly needed all their players motoring as Kilkenny were suddenly easing ahead. Clare had their space crowded and found it much more difficult to take the scores; they just weren't allowed to go forward. Also there was nobody coming in to pick up the ball from the player who was closed down in possession. That for me suggested that this was a match too far. They were stumbling as they chased, which meant they didn't have the legs or else were simply mentally tired.
To their credit, they never gave up and kept battling to the end. By then Kilkenny were far superior as a unit, showing heart and commitment. The forwards began to move because Power began to move and together there were pulling away from the Clare defence, and that is a sign of a team on the up. They had the legs to go the distance but Clare were coming off six tough matches and just ran out of luck.
Another difference as well was in the subs. Kilkenny brought on Niall Moloney and PJ Delaney: Moloney added strength and Delaney showed he was prepared to fight for his place. This shows the depth of the squad going into the All-Ireland.
Clare played out with tremendous pride and Ger Loughnane deserves great credit for what he's done for the county. All these Clare players are still young even though they've been around a long time. The dust will settle a bit now and I believe there is another All-Ireland left in this team yet.
They'll be back.
In an interview with Ian O'Riordan