Saturday 10 December 2016

Banner's brave aerial attack shakes Kilkenny to their core

Published 18/04/2016 | 02:30

Clare’s John Conlon pounces to score his side’s first goal past Kilkenny goalkeeper Eoin Murphy and Joey Holden. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
Clare’s John Conlon pounces to score his side’s first goal past Kilkenny goalkeeper Eoin Murphy and Joey Holden. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile

Every word was programmed to douse bonfires flaming up in the heads of their people, but Clare might need more than just muffled voices to keep this giddiness down.

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You would have been declared a dangerous heretic yesterday morning to prophesise the path they would take to dismantling Kilkenny. Nobody chases an alligator into a swamp, right? Going after Kilkenny in the air would have sounded like just about the dumbest plan since someone came up with the idea of filling a giant zeppelin with hydrogen.

But that's what Davy Fitz, Donal Og and company did in Thurles yesterday.

They squared up to Kilkenny in a way that nobody has considered wise in recent times. Sure, they were still faithful to the fundamental principle of coveting possession and keeping bodies close to their own goal. But Clare weren't slaves to any one constitution or system here.

They picked three forwards in John Conlon, Aaron Cunningham and Darach Honan who were happy to put their hands up and, if anything, that very effrontery seemed to throw the Cats into collective panic.

Simple

It wasn't strictly that simple of course. You can't just spoon hopeful ball into the skies and hope to make hay against Kilkenny. You must have moxy and movement around the landing zone and Clare had both. Their hurling was a living synthesis of venomous running and clever touch then. They got bodies into places in which Kilkenny often looked haplessly half-dressed.

It was a revelation.

Put it this way, Clare's three first-half goals all came from high deliveries that couldn't have discomfited Eoin Murphy and Joey Holden more had the descending sliotar been a hissing hand-grenade. Conlon got the first, Cunningham the next two. And all the time Brian Cody stood on the line - hands clasped behind his back - impassive as a man, you suspect, who sees every bad day as an education.

Clare were wonderful and utterly dominant and yet, incredibly, Kilkenny would leave the pitch with 2-19 mined.

It was a statistic that surely ran out across the broader hurling landscape as a warning not to be measuring caskets any time soon. What other team so palpably immersed in crisis could accumulate that score against packed, defiant numbers. More to the point, they did so with TJ Reid and Richie Hogan managing just 0-1 each from play.

Davy Fitz could sense a share of different narratives unspooling here. And he wasn't of a mind to go beating the drum presented to him.

"Trust me, this is April," he shrugged with a knowing smile. "Let's not get carried away with anything stupid."

Around him, to a man, his players seemed on message too. Conlon reminded folk that it was "only the League", that "everyone's going to be different for the Championship". Conor McGrath reminded people that none of this Clare team had yet even had the privilege of playing in a League final.

And Tony Kelly? Two points from his first two touches in this year's competition? "These games are building blocks, that's all these games are."

So you get the gist. Clare may have pulled lightning from the sky here, but they weren't about to start shouting the odds about how they did it. All we can follow is the evidence of the naked eye suggesting they have grown into something through winter, that they have evolved and maybe matured and, suddenly, found a way of feeling comfortable in their own skin.

They were still without a pocket of likely Championship starters yesterday, yet still got 70 minutes into a resurgent Podge Collins and, finally, gave Kelly his first competitive run of 2016. And all the time, they did so whilst preserving a perfect winning run that now stretches to 11 games.

This, though, looked a statement they had been storing.

"Our work-rate today was savage, our hooks, our blocks, our tackles are way up," admitted Fitzgerald. "The lads played with savage pride and heart.

"But look, last year we were losing games by a point or two and getting hammered outside which I thought was tough going. You win an All-Ireland with a bunch of 20-year-olds and they win three under-21s and you know the numbers aren't up to where they need to be with their blocking and tackling, their enthusiasm, they are allowed a small bit of scope...and I don't know how much scope they were given."

Clare have not won the League since 1978 and now face Waterford, the defending champions and their opponents in the Munster Championship on June 5. If Fitzgerald anticipated any shadow-boxing, it didn't show.

"Time now to start gearing up," he said flatly. Looks like his team is listening.

Cody, typically, was sanguine about what we had seen. "It was always going to be a very, very difficult game for us," he reflected. "They out-hurled us all over the field."

The first game took longer to warm up than central heating with air in the system. In fact, the price of 16/1 on offer for no goals to be scored looked like a mental aberration on the part of the bookmaking fraternity.

Scrubbing

Then Waterford came out for the resumption, scrubbing all the supposed knowledge we had accumulated clean, and ran rings around a Limerick team - seemingly - determined to flatter them by imitation.

Time and again, Limerick got themselves into trouble looking to navigate their way out of defence with short deliveries that lacked the requisite precision. And so a style of play it will never be easy to get sentimental about became a kind of addled identity crisis for the men in green.

Limerick look in a more natural environment when hurling off the cuff and, let's be honest, trying to play chess against Kasparov usually isn't wise.

Waterford, after all, are two years into this process and just intercepted every imperfect pass. Once the excellent Shane Bennett despatched a 43rd-minute penalty past Nicky Quaid, the game largely became an exercise in book-keeping. And the team we told the world could not score goals added two more as if they'd simply been hoarding them for bigger days.

What do we know?

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