Brilliant banner to face Waterford in League final after hammering Kilkenny
Clare 4-22 Kilkenny 2-19
The Banner are back! Clare produced their best performance since their epic All-Ireland final replay win over Cork in 2013 to demolish All-Ireland champions Kilkenny in Thurles.
This rare Clare win over the Cats in a knock-out match – they beat them by 10 points in the 2001 League semi-final - gives them a place in the Allianz League final against Munster rivals Waterford in two weeks' time.
Five weeks later, the two counties clash in the Munster championship which suggests that the first-ever League decider between the counties will be a tactical affair.
Last spring Kilkenny defeated Clare in a relegation play-off but Clare used their season in Division 1B to rediscover their winning ways. They remain unbeaten in the competition as they bid for their first tittle since 1978. They last appeared in a league final in 2005.
The return of Podge Collins and Tony Kelly and the form of Aaron Cunningham, who hit 2-3 from play in the first half, were all positives for Davy Fitzgerald's side.
The depleted Cats were routed on a day that they badly missed the services of Michael and Colin Fennelly. The failure of their normally influential pair of TJ Reid and Richie Hogan to make any impact on the scoreboard from play – between them they managed just two points – also militated against their chances.
There were a plethora of positional changes particularly on the Clare side with Colm Galvin switching to midfield and the Banner County deploying a two-man full-forward line of John Conlon and Aaron Cunningham.
Team captain Shane Prendergast was sweeping for the Cats but Clare's attacking formation completely unhinged the usually reliable Kilkenny rearguard. Goalkeeper Eoin Murphy and fuill back Joey Holden had a first half to forget as they twice got their calls mixed up which resulted in Conlon and Cunningham scoring opportunistic goals in the 11th and 26th minutes respectively.
By then the All-Ireland title holders had withdrawn veteran defender Jackie Tyrrell who had been roasted by the magnificent Cunningham who beat Murphy on his near side for Clare's second goal in the 20th minute.
Kilkenny – with nine of their All-Ireland final team on duty - were totally outplayed in every sector in the half. Granted Clare had the advantage of the breeze but this wasn't the only reason for their complete superiority.
They had no answer to Clare's massed defence and the brilliance of Conlon and Cunningham who between them contributed 3-4 from play in the first half. Galvin hit three points from play as well as Clare racked up a remarkable tally of 3-12. Kilkenny were restricted to just ten points – with four coming from TJ Reid frees.
So the Banner County led by 11 at half time. Arguably it was Kilkenny's worst first-half performance since conceding 2-12 in the opening 35 of the 2012 Leinster final against Galway and trailed by 14 at the break.
Through all this Brian Cody scarcely moved from his position in front of the team's dug-out and there wasn't a flicker of emotion from him as he walked to the dressing room.
Surely there would be some response from Kilkenny after the break. But two points from the excellent Conor McGrath in the opening six minutes of the second half with just one reply from Kilkenny stretched Clare's lead to 12.
Finally TJ Reid stepped up and drove a 25m free to the net – in truth it wasn't one of his better efforts but it ricocheted off the ankle of a Clare defender and tricked over the line. When TJ Reid (free) and Cillian Buckley followed up with points the margin was down to seven with 25 minutes left and anything seemed possible.
But Clare killed the game was a contest with a blistering goal from McGrath in the 51st minute and just to rub salt into the Cats' wound, Clare substitute Tony Kelly announced his arrival on the field with a brace of points – one of which was an utterly stunning score.
With Clare now 13 points in the clear, Kilkenny were playing for their self respect. Typically they responded with a goal from Jojoe Farrell who out-fielded Patrick O'Connor and drove past Patrick Kelly. The rest was academic as Clare ran their best and Kilkenny tried to minimize the margin of defeat.
In the end they lost by a relatively respectable nine points which given how the game panned out hardly reflected Clare's overall dominance. So the Banner march on while Kilkenny go back to camp. Rest assured they will be a different animal come the Championship, provided they get their injured players – particularly the Fennelly brothers - back on board.
The official attendance was 20,481
Kilkenny: E Murphy; J Tyrrell, J Holden, S Prendergast; P Walsh (0-2), K Joyce, C O'Shea; L Ryan, C Buckley (0-1); W Walsh (0-2), TJ Reid (1-7, 1gl from free, 6f), K Kelly (0-2); J Power (0-1) JJ Farrell (1-1) R Hogan (0-1). Subs: B Kennedy for Tyrrell 21m; L Blanchfield for O'Shea 55m, C Bolger (0-2) for Kelly 63m
Clare: P Kelly; O O'Brien, C Dillon, P Flanagan; B Bugler, C Cleary, P O'Connor; C Galvin (0-5), D Fitzgerald; J Conlon (1-1), D Reidy (0-1) A Cunningham (2-3); C McGrath (1-6, 2f, 2 65), P Collins (0-1), D Honan (0-2). Subs: T Kelly (0-2) for Conlon 51m; C O'Connell (0-1) for Honan 57m; C Ryan for Reidy 64m, A Shanagher for Cunningham 67m, B Duggan for P Collins 70m
Referee: F Hogan (Tipperary)