Clare can stand firm in face of expected Kilkenny storm in All-Ireland hurling semi-final

The Leinster champions’ track record of thriving as underdogs poses a challenge to Brian Lohan’s rising team

In the four weeks since their victory in an underwhelming Leinster final, Kilkenny have moved in the public consciousness from limited contenders when set against the fireworks of Munster’s pyrotechnicians to menacing outsiders.

Clare have eased back a little to assist in this process even though their only contest in the meantime has been a laudable recovery against Wexford in the All-Ireland quarter-final.

Why is this?

For a start Brian Cody has engineered 18 successes at this stage out of 23 attempts, creating the voodoo that Kilkenny can find a way no matter what the odds. That may well be a misreading of all those matches when the county was in its pomp and largely untouchable but who knows the impact that has on opponents or indeed, Kilkenny themselves?

Most recently in 2019, champions Limerick were jolted out of their complacency by a ferocious physical challenge in the early stages of that year’s semi-final. They managed to recover to an extent but weren’t able to close the deal.

In the remainder of more recent years, since 2016 the county twice failed to reach the last four and has contested five All-Ireland semi-finals, winning just two, including in ‘19.

Secondly, the concept of the Leinster championship has been slightly elevated by Galway’s dispatch of Cork and Wexford’s better than expected showing against Clare.

After a provincial campaign that was fitful and on occasion, sour Kilkenny are said to have spent the intervening four weeks training in a more positive environment in which players are finding renewed form, most strikingly Richie Hogan.

Anyone whose age runs into double digits is wary of the ‘flying in training’ reports after an otherwise unimpressive campaign but if Kilkenny have managed to sharpen up their top forwards, especially Eoin Cody and Adrian Mullen, Clare will need to be at a higher pitch than two weeks ago.

It’s likely that they will be and Brian Lohan’s defensive unit is solid even if doubts may have crept in during the Wexford quarter-final, as evident in the hair-trigger replacement of Rory Hayes nine minutes into the match.

The Wolfe Tones corner back has conceded some big scores in the championship to date even if liability doesn’t extend quite as far as the entirety of the numbers in brackets after the name of the key opposition forward he started out marking.

In front of the inside line, the half backs of Diarmuid Ryan, John Conlon and David McInerney have been very dependable and effective both in finding vital scores and also defending. Were Kilkenny to make an impact here, it would dial up pressure on Clare.

Yet, their forward play has been uninspiring with just three points from play in the second half of the Leinster final, two tacked on at the very end after TJ Reid had taken effectively sole command of scoring duties. Are 22 points likely to win this semi-final? There should be better in them but it hasn’t been on view very often and needs to be.

Defence has been very effective. Eoin Murphy in goal is as ever, Mikey Butler has had a terrific rookie championship and Huw Lawlor stood up well, with well judged assistance but unlike the Leinster final, Clare are coming with more than one functioning forward.

Shane O’Donnell has attracted attention because his all-action, industrious play has emphasised creating opportunity rather than finishing but good as he has been there have also been scoring impressive contributions from others, such as David Fitzgerald and Ryan Taylor

The abiding question in their matches is who takes Tony Kelly and there has been speculation that Butler will be handed the task. An efficient man marking detail such as Shane Reck’s in the quarter-final managed to restrict Kelly to four points from play but he has the ability to move around and if in top form, can be unplayable.

Back in Croke Park, it’s quite possible that he will find that form and maybe Kilkenny will prepare a couple of players to take up the task at various stages.

One element of his game that triggered concern has been free taking, which has blinked in the last two matches. It’s not likely that Brian Lohan will switch him permanently off them such is the regard for the player’s ability to deliver but also because Peter Duggan hasn’t shot the lights out as understudy.

Clare will need to be prepared because Kilkenny can be expected to put them on notice from the start.

Cody’s proven capacity to disorientate opponents and the ability of his players to maintain pressure will be important factors but they meet opponents who have dealt with a variety of challenges and simply look to have better form than the Leinster champions.

Verdict: Clare

Seán Moran

Seán Moran

Seán Moran is GAA Correspondent of The Irish Times