Sharp Kilkenny bring Clare down to earth

 

AH, the joys of winter league hurling. Heavy ground, stiff limbs, frozen fingers, slow movements. That was just the press box. Out on the field Clare and Kilkenny did their best to provide hurling which defied the elements and bore traces of summer fluency.

Clare were shaking a winter of celebration out of their bodies yesterday. Indeed they have been erasing the traces of indulgence for some weeks now on the floodlit field at Crusheen. The signs of that heavy, sapping work are still with them, but young faces are beginning to percolate, through to the team and despite yesterday's setback spring still looks pregnant with promise.

Kilkenny, for their part, have been winning every second match since the league cranked into life last October. The pattern continued yesterday with this slightly unexpected windfall of two points. Kilkenny people doubt this team yet if they were hesitant in defence yesterday the suspicion is that dilatory failing will be cured by the imminent return of the O'Connors of Glenmore. Elsewhere there were reasons for some optimism.

Clare, still conscious even in the afterglow of an All-Ireland win of the aristocratic hearing of yesterday's visitors to Ennis, started off in a hurry, huffing and puffing, harrying and hustling, doing their best to negate the advantage conferred on Kilkenny by a howling wind. They got a lesson in calm and economy from Kilkenny, who exhibited no signs of crippling anxiety.

After two minutes Den is Byrne whipped over a fine point, having chased down a cleanly-whipped ground pass. Two minutes later, with an elegant sense of symmetry, Charlie Carter, the other corner forward, pushed over another point. If Clare's attacks were all being channelled towards the congested goal area. then Kilkenny were spreading the ball low and out to the open prairie. On seven minutes DJ Carey lobbed over a 65 metre free. Clare were still looking for some rhythm, Kilkenny were playing from memory.

In fact, in many parts yesterday's game was redolent of last summer's National League final between the same combatants. Clare, bigger and more muscular, looked solid down the spine of their defence, where Brian Lohan repeated the trick of holding DJ Carey scoreless from play. Yet Kikenny's traditional ability to spray low ball into the corners caused difficulties time and time again. Byrne and Carter were seldom bettered when chasing the ball out in front of them. Frank Lohan and Brian Quinn, Clare's corner backs, worked hard and tirelessly, but the source of their problem lay in the quality of the supply being fed in.

Up front Clare still seem to commit too much effort to too few scores. But, with their spring work and ball work still ahead of them their progress in that regard should be as impressive as it was in early summer last year. Of the new or returning faces yesterday the most promise was exuded by Brian Murphy at right corner forward who latched onto several judiciously paced balls and displayed the speed and savvy needed to skin his man and scoot into scoring positions.

He had a bad wide at a juncture of the game when a score might have set him for something special, and was a little bit more tentative thereafter. On the firm sod of summer he should add an edge to Clare.

At midfield Ronan O'Hara didn't do enough to build on the promise he showed before Christmas. Getting clunked on the head by a carelessly wielded hurley early on didn't help his cause or confidence however. He performed well early on, but faded to obscurity in the second half.

Kilkenny's turbulent transitional period with their own midfield continued yesterday. Canice Brennan and Michael Phelan ended up manning the pump yesterday, with Bill Hennessy having departed for foreign shores and John Power having been sent ashore early in the second half for a second bookable offence.

The results before Power's departure were mixed. Clare were surrendering possession in midfield - big Ollie Baker was pulling down a lot of ball, but Clare's tendency to take much out of the ball prevented their advantage from showing on the scoreboard.

Indeed Kilkenny's exemplary opportunism was such that by half time they had augmented their bright start with two fine goals

The first, on 23 minutes was a paen to direct play. DJ Carey pulled down a high ball 30 yards from goal and almost nonchalantly hand passed vertically out to his old minor confederate Charlie Carter, who pulled quickly, drawing a superb save from David Fitzgerald in the Clare goal. The impressive Patrick Farrell steamed through to pull to the net.

Ollie Baker replied with a point, but just three minutes later Farrell pulled a low ball across the face of the Clare goal and Carter, steaming through to meet it, doubled to the net.

Half-time, and with Kilkenny leading by 2-4 to 0-5 and Clare about to exploit the wind, the game seemed nicely balanced.

Having scored the first three points of the second half yesterday Clare seemed to have broken the back of the challenge facing them. The impression that the current was running their way was strengthened when John Power was dismissed four minutes into the half

That Clare ended up losing might give them cause for pause in the coming weeks. A loss of concentration or a smidgen of complacency granted Kilkenny the opportunity to string three points together in the space of four minutes midway through the half. Whatever it's origin, that window of opportunity was the sort of reprieve which hungry hurling teams seldom grant kilkenny.

Farrell, confident and adventurous on the right wing, Carey from a free and Derek Gaffney, crisply from play, restored Kilkenny's advantage to five points with just seven minutes left.

Clare went looking for the impetus of a goal late in the game, but with sub Pat O'Dwyer putting himself about at full back, a goal seemed about as likely as sunshine in Ennis.

London hurlers took another step towards promotion to Division Two of the National League when they recorded a comprehensive 7-9 to 0-6 victory over Louth - their fifth successive win - at Ruislip yesterday.

The game was as good as over at half-time with the table-toppers ahead by 3-3 to 0-3 despite playing against the wind. Full forward Mick O'Meara was the central figure in London's win, accounting for five of their goals.