Kilkenny 1-18 Clare 2-18
There is making things hard on yourself and then there is what Clare did here. When Cathal Malone popped over a breezy score from a David Reidy handpass on 19 minutes, they found themselves 2-7 to 0-2 ahead and cruising. Clare had Kilkenny so thoroughly covered in every area of the pitch that Brian Cody started to run his bench, like a man trying a few different passwords to get his computer up and running.
For Clare to find themselves scratching and clawing for the win as injury-time dawned later on was fairly unforgivable from that point. It wasn’t even that they throttled back noticeably, more that their shooting went to pieces and Kilkenny took heart from not having the game put beyond their reach. Twelve second-half wides from Clare was four more than the home side spilled in the whole game. Even in Kilkenny’s reduced capacity, you can’t be allowing them access to that sort of hope.
"You're never going to run away with anything at Nowlan Park," said Clare co-manager Donal Moloney afterwards. "Never, ever. Even when we went 11 points up we knew Kilkenny would come back. It made for a very enjoyable game for the supporters. The home following really got behind them. We were made to fight every step of the way.
“There are lots of things we need to work on. Our finishing left a little bit to be desired. Lots of room for improvement, a dozen second-half wides, a monopoly of possession. Kilkenny were left in the game and they kept coming back.”
That they did. Given his list of absentees, there’s probably not a huge amount for Cody to be getting too worked up about after this. In a weird way, it’s Moloney and Gerry O’Connor who might be waking up this morning with an excess of doubts nagging at them.
It’s like that old Lee Trevino line: “There are two things that won’t last long in this world – dogs who chase cars and pros who putt for pars.” By the same token, there is a limited future in being significantly better than the opposition without ending their interest in the day’s events. Clare got away with it here. It goes without saying that they won’t always.
That said, for those opening 20 minutes, they were fairly irresistible. John Conlon was a workhorse at centre forward, with Shane O'Donnell and David Reidy orbiting him to deadly effect. O'Donnell pinged home the opening goal after eight minutes, catching and turning for goal in one dainty movement after a Tony Kelly pass and spearing his shot high into the top corner.
When Reidy tried a long-distance effort for a point 10 minutes later, it hung in the air for an age before falling into the usually sound grasp of Eoin Murphy in the Kilkenny goal. On this occasion though, Murphy spilled into the net to the groans of all around. And though Kilkenny replied almost immediately with an equally scrappy goal at the other end – a long Murphy free landing in a thicket of hurleys in the square and worming its way to the net – Clare still should have seen it out handily enough.
They led 2-12 to 1-7 at half-time but could never quite shake Kilkenny, for whom Alan Murphy's frees were the main route to the scoreboard. Mark Keoghan, one of the early subs, made a fine impression off the bench with a necklace of rousing points and Walter Walsh came into matters in the full-forward line.
Clare, by contrast, went from having eight different scorers from play in the first half to seeing nine different players hit wides after the restart. They kept taking pot-shots from distance, causing O'Donnell and Peter Duggan to eventually drift further and further out the field in search of work. They spared Kilkenny the chore of working out what to do with Conlon by effectively taking him out of the game themselves, repeatedly bypassing him for shots at goal. It was careless stuff.
In the end, Kilkenny ran out of road. Alan Murphy missed his first placed ball of the day at precisely the wrong time when an injury-time 65 just leaked wide. Had he scored it, Clare's lead would have been down to one and the next puck-out would have been anyone's. As it was, Clare managed to farm the ball up the field where substitute Niall Deasy nailed the sealing score from a tight angle.
Out the gap. Just.
KILKENNY: Eoin Murphy (0-2, two frees); Joey Holden, Pádraig Walsh, Paddy Deegan; Cillian Buckley, Robert Lennon, Joe Lyng; James Maher, Ollie Walsh; John Donnelly, Richie Reid, Richie Leahy (0-1); Bill Sheehan (1-0), Walter Walsh (0-2), Alan Murphy (0-10, eight frees, two 65s).
Subs: Enda Morrissey for Lyng (21 mins); Pat Lyng for O Walsh (26); Martin Keoghan (0-3) for Reid (26); Conor O'Shea for Lennon (44); Liam Blanchfield for Donnelly (63 mins).
CLARE: Donal Tuohy; Jack Browne, Conor Cleary, Patrick O'Connor; David Fitzgerald (0-1), David McInerney, Seadna Morey (0-1); Colm Galvin (0-1), Tony Kelly (0-1); Cathal Malone (0-2), John Conlon (0-3), David Reidy (1-3); Shane O'Donnell (1-0), Peter Duggan (0-5, three free, one S/L cut), Podge Collins.
Subs: Mikey O'Malley for Fitzgerald (55 mins); Ian Galvin for Collins (61); Niall Deasy (0-1) for Malone (66); Jason McCarthy for Duggan (72).
Referee: James McGrath (Westmeath).