Cuala 3-12, Clare 0-17: The winter sun flooded Parnell Parkyesterday afternoon but it shone more brightly for Cuala, who are back in the AIB Leinster club hurling final for the first time in a quarter of a century.
The defeat of Kilkenny champions Clara was deserved and gave the Dubliners a prestige scalp to take into the decider in two weeks’ time, the first time the county has been represented at such an exalted level since Ballyboden in 2007.
Goals were the difference between the sides and the quality of the Cuala attack ultimately took its toll on Clara’s prospects.
Mark Schutte had a hand in all three goals, assisting the first two and scoring the third.
Wexford official Gearóid McGrath was as much an accompanist as a referee so regular was his whistling but winning manager Mattie Kenny acknowledged that his team had committed some careless fouls.
Clara's Keith Hogan was the wrong man to be giving chances to and he ended up with a dozen points, all from frees but his dead-ball acumen wasn't sufficient in itself to give the favourites the scoreboard initiative during a second half when they determinedly whittled away at what was at one stage a seven-point deficit. The gap was twice cut back to two.
A glorious strike from Colm Cronin on the right wing restored Cuala’s lead to four as the match ticked into injury-time and that effectively brought down the curtain.
“Semi-finals are for winning,” said Kenny afterwards. “We had to work very hard for that and the lads put in a huge shift to get a result and fair play to them.
“The goals were critical scores. Mark made one and got the other. It gave us that lead going in at half-time and then coming out after half-time and facing a strong breeze it really gave us a good platform.
“Our lads showed composure. We said we had to keep the scoreboard ticking, from frees or play – whatever it was. We knew they’d come back. There was a strong breeze into us but the lads kept working away and it wasn’t easy; that was a good Clara team.”
The first quarter was a cagey affair with half of the scores coming from frees, converted by both Hogan and his counterpart David Treacy.
Clara were characteristically hard working, at one stage hustling the Cuala defence into coughing up a free 25 metres out for over-holding.
As the match settled, however, the Dublin champions began to hit their stride and stretch their opponents. Darragh O'Connell and Jake Malone were putting it up to Lester Ryan and Jack Langton at centrefield and the first incision came with Clara 0-6 to 0-5 ahead.
According to Kenny, he encourages the players to go for goals and after being placed for a shot by Schutte, Cronin obliged in the 15th minute, disdaining an easy point and lashing in the opening goal. Cuala would never trail again in the match.
Clara still chased hard; Hogan shot his frees and
swept over an equaliser but Cuala kept inching ahead.
The gap opened in earnest a couple of minutes from the break when Schutte powered in on goal but his shot was blocked and Seán Treacy swept in the rebound.
At the break Cuala led by four, 2-8 to 0-10 but after having played with the wind.
Their grip tightened, though, a minute into the second half when Cronin’s high, dropping ball was touched into the net by Schutte.
A run of four Hogan frees closed the gap to two half way through the second half and the match was back in the balance.
However, Cuala’s defence kept out the goal that would have ignited the Clara challenge.
Seán Brennan had earlier saved from Conor O’Shea and the defence in general earned plaudits from the manager.
Brennan wouldn’t have issued many plaudits to the officials when penalised for tripping O’Shea in the 43rd minute after the forward had fallen over himself - in front of an umpire – and Hogan pointed.
Malone stuck for his second point in the 48th minute to halt Clara’s scoring sequence and although Hogan’s final free trimmed the margin again, the turning point had been reached.
O’Shea was sent off for a second yellow card with four minutes left, allowing David Treacy to restore the three-point lead, 3-11 to 0-17.
“Yeah, they were put under pressure quite a lot,” said Kenny when asked had the semi-final been a step-up.
“Our lads handled that, they came to grips with it and you’d have to be proud of the Cuala lads the way they handled it. You can’t beat experience, you can’t beat playing at this level and the guys should only be the better of it.”
Cuala face Oulart The Ballagh in the Leinster final next Sunday week.
CUALA: S Brennan; R Tierney, Cian O’Callaghan, S Timlin; J Sheanon, O Gough, S Moran; J Malone (0-2), D O’Connell (0-1); C Waldron (0-1), C Cronin (1-2), C Sheanon; S Treacy (1-0), M Schutte (1-0), D Treacy (0-6, five frees). Subs: Con O’Callaghan for C Sheanon (40 mins), N Kenny for Waldron (60 mins) CLARA: K Phelan; T Ryan, S O’Shea, D Nolan; N Prendergast, S Prendergast, D Langton; Lester Ryan (0-1), J Langton (0-1); Liam Ryan (0-1), C O’Shea, J Byrne; C Bolger (0-2), K Hogan (0-12, all frees), C Prendergast. Subs: J Nolan for Byrne (54 mins), J Murphy for Hogan (60 mins), P Nolan for Liam Ryan (61 mins) REFEREE: G McGrath (Wexford)