Kilkenny erupt into contention and give Clare the hardest of lessons

Brian Cody’s men march into the 17th All-Ireland final of his managerial career

Kilkenny 2-26 Clare 0-20

Be careful what you wish for. Clare had spent the seasons since 2013 lamenting the inability to get back to Croke Park more often. On Saturday they met the county that has had more or less permanent tenancy there during the managerial reign of Brian Cody and felt the full force of that experience of getting it right on the big day.

In his 24 years in charge, the Kilkenny manager has lost just four semi-finals and now won 17. That strike rate had flagged in recent years with just one semi-final success in the previous five seasons. Clare had also looked to be hurling at a different level during a high-octane campaign in Munster.

That proved an illusion in the finest traditions of the genre: fiery Munster campaigns producing teams, who end up dismantled by supposedly more prosaic opponents – a presumption about which Cody was withering in the media conference.

Ironically Clare’s harder-earned than expected progress against Wexford had been ascribed to their hangover from an epic Munster final but it turned out to be evidence of decline and that Brian Lohan’s team had peaked in the province.

Kilkenny were dominant beyond recognition compared to the team that laboured through last month’s Leinster final. Their attack, unimaginative and unproductive that evening were alive, clever and above all, supremely accurate. In the first half when they largely consigned this All-Ireland semi-final to history, they scored 0-17 and shot one wide. Clare managed 0-6 and missed 13.

All Kilkenny’s forwards had scored from play by half-time; one of Clare’s, Shane O’Donnell, had and that was for just 0-1.

It was a different level all around the field. Adrian Mullen glided around the attack and clipped 0-5 from play. His Ballyhale colleagues Eoin Cody, with 0-2, and TJ Reid – two from play but flawless from frees all afternoon and irrepressible as a ball winner – loaded on the pain for Clare but with excellent support from everyone up front.

The second half had more ebb and flow but stripped of a competitive context, the match faded out leaving Clare stunned and Kilkenny celebrating a fourth decade of All-Ireland finals under Cody.

Influential Clare centre back John Conlon was replaced before the start by Páidí Fitzpatrick, who went to the wing with David McInerney switching to defensive pivot. Fitzpatrick is unusual in that he made his championship debut at the age of 30 a year ago and hadn’t featured a lot in the meantime.

It was always going to be disruptive given how good McInerney had been at left wing back and with Fitzpatrick replaced at the break he returned there eventually where he was one of the Clare players to impress.

The awful realisation for them must have begun to dawn after about 20 minutes, as Kilkenny pulled away point by point and Clare’s attempts to keep pace were continually undermined by wides.

Their key performer, Tony Kelly, had shrugged off free-taking problems in the Munster final and the All-Ireland quarter-final to deliver from play but on this occasion, once the dead-ball yips struck again and he had fired a couple wide from play, it was all in the context of Reid’s icy conversion of everything that came his way.

The Kilkenny defence was imperious under high ball, Huw Lawlor letting nothing through and Paddy Deegan and Tommy Walsh swift and sharp to tidy up what went loose.

Rookie defender Mikey Butler added to Kelly’s discomfort, sticking to him like a limpet and keeping him scoreless from play. None of the other attackers bar O’Donnell and Fitzgerald to an extent got any traction. Ian Galvin was replaced before half-time but Aron Shanagher, such a weapon off the bench in the quarter-final, struggled like the others.

Martin Keoghan, cutely helping himself to a ball running loose from a ruck, swept in the first goal just before the break and at 1-17 to 0-6, there was nothing much left for argument.

Clare were more competitive in the second half but never looked like a team coming back simply because they rarely tried to engineer the goals that would have been the lifeblood of any recovery. Players eagerly thrashed for points and the wides total climbed to 24 by the end.

Some scores went over with Fitzgerald and O’Donnell trying to make it all respectable but Kilkenny, although they inevitably became sloppy as the match wound on, retained enough of the assassin’s instinct to keep the scoreboard rolling.

Early on, in the 43rd minute, Cian Kenny, who returned to form at centrefield, ran on to a ball won by replacement Walter Walsh, and nailed the second goal to emphasise that there would be no unlikely comeback.

Then in the 56th minute, the lead at 10, O’Donnell spotted a gap and went for it but over-carried and within seconds instead of the margin being cut to seven, Reid was pushing it to 11.

In the closing minutes, Fitzgerald tried a snapshot but Murphy was still alert enough to save for a 65.

Kilkenny saw it out with minimal stress and reach another final. This was reminiscent of their most recent All-Ireland final year in 2019 when they became the last team to defeat current champions Limerick.

KILKENNY: 1 E Murphy; 4 T Walsh, 3 H Lawlor, 7 P Deegan; 5 M Carey, 6 R Reid (capt), 2 M Butler; 9 C Browne (0-1), 15 C Kenny (1-2); 12 TJ Reid (0-10, seven frees), 11 P Walsh (0-2), 13 B Ryan (0-2); 8 A Mullen (0-5), 14 M Keoghan (1-0), 10 E Cody (0-3).

Subs: 23 W Walsh (0-1) for Keoghan (half-time), 24 J Donnelly P Walsh (49 mins), 25 R Leahy for Browne (62), 22 A Murphy for Ryan (66), 18 D Blanchfield for Carey (72).

CLARE: 1 E Quilligan; 2 R Hayes (0-1), 3 C Cleary, 4 P Flanagan; 5 D Ryan (0-3), 7 D McInerney (0-1), 17 P Fitzpatrick; 10 C Malone, 15 R Taylor (0-1); 11 T Kelly (capt; 0-4, three frees, one 65), 12 S O’Donnell (0-4), 8 D Fitzgerald (0-3); 9 D Reidy, 13 I Galvin, 14 P Duggan (0-1, free)

Subs: 18 A Shanagher for Galvin (26 mins), 23 C Nolan for Fitzpatrick, 26 M Rogers (0-2) for Reidy (both half-time), 19 S Meehan for Duggan (49), 21 S Golden for Taylor (65).

Referee: Feargal Horgan (Tipperary).

Seán Moran

Seán Moran

Seán Moran is GAA Correspondent of The Irish Times