Kelly's late wonder finish floors Déise
Clare 1-23 Waterford 2-19
Published 09/05/2016 | 02:30
In any summation of last weekend's drawn match or preview to this replay the scope for improvement in Tony Kelly was a recurring theme.
Clare progression would be linked, not so much to any loosening of the reins, but to what impact the 2013 Hurler of the Year might have.
Thus his stunning injury-time intervention before a 14,210 crowd franked any sense that, seven days on, he might be the difference. His return to top form after a three-month injury lay-off has been swift and quite dynamic.
By the time he engineered and then converted an equalising free two minutes into injury-time he had already scored 1-4 from play, his goal on 48 minutes reining in a Waterford side that were establishing firm control with four successive points between the 43rd and 47th minutes.
Within seconds of Stephen O'Keeffe's puck-out after that free, Clare, through the towering David Fitzgerald, claimed possession and Kelly had worked himself into a position on the opposite side of the field from where he had landed his equaliser off his left to score a spectacular winner off his right.
Two strikes off either side from different sides of the field - all in less than 30 seconds. His temperament matches his talent.
The drama was compounded by the fact that they had chased almost all day from the moment, just 17 seconds in, that Patrick Curran had rounded Patrick O'Connor on his outside and crashed past Patrick Kelly for an early shot in the arm. For just three minutes at the end of the first quarter, when Conor McGrath edged them 0-6 to 1-2 in front from a free, were their noses in front.
There was time for no more and, for the first time since the back-to-back winning 1977-'78 team backboned by that supreme Sean Hehir-Sean Stack-Ger Loughnane half-back axis, Clare are league champions, extending their unbeaten sequence between Munster (four) and Allianz (nine) leagues to 13 games.
Kelly's wasn't the only intervention though that framed those dramatic closing plays. Or rather lack of intervention. How Jamie Barron wasn't awarded a free for being blatantly pulled to the ground, just seconds before Kelly was awarded his for much more benign contact, was baffling.
In light of what subsequently happened, the Barron decision effectively decided this league final as a free from the halfway mark, even with the wind blowing into his face, was well within Curran's range given how he had been striking them. Straight away a potential two-point swing at the game's most crucial juncture.
Obviously, we can scrutinise the legitimacy of any decision in a one-point game and claim it as the difference but the foul on Barron was blatant and the timing magnifies it that bit more.
That's not to take from the immense character that Kelly and Clare showed to keep hunting this game down when not everything was going for them.
Curran's early strike felt like a hammer-blow, considering the absence of goals and opportunities in the drawn game. But they recovered composure and used Waterford's reluctance to push up on a succession of short puck-outs to find a way back in with points for Podge Collins, Aaron Cunningham and Kelly taking them to within a point by the 10th minute.
Once again both sides committed bodies to that middle third and countless rucks developed that sometimes lasted up to 20 seconds before an outcome was determined but this time there was more composure from both sides and the option to drive it in on top of lone full-forwards at both ends was rebuffed in preference to a more measured approach. It led to more turnovers though, none more damaging than Shane Bennett's interception of O'Connor's cross-field delivery after he had taken a short puck-out.
Bennett daringly carried as three pursuers closed and looked to have taken it too far but at just the right moment popped a pass to Jake Dillon who had switched inside and Waterford had a second goal and a three-point lead by the 20th minute.
Conor McGrath did steady them but when Waterford then embarked on a four-point sequence through a much improved Austin Gleeson, Curran (free), Bennett and Barron a six-point deficit opened up that Waterford looked capable of extending.
Curran's greater accuracy from frees was a pivotal difference to the previous week when three different marksmen combined to miss eight placed balls between them. This time the count was down to three with Curran off the mark just twice as he amassed 1-9, six from frees and a '65.
Gleeson, in a more advanced role, also showed improvement on last week and landed three points from play, two of which were quite spectacular strikes off either side on the turn. But he might regret not steadying himself more off his left after a turnover on 69 minutes gifted him with an opportunity to restore a three-point lead. The next three points were Clare's, sufficient to win the game.
Significantly, Gleeson's marker David Fitzgerald also emerged with credit, claiming that last puck-out while Collins, who had picked up Gleeson a week earlier, also put in a big first half. But once again it was McGrath who arrested any slide in that opening period, especially as half-time closed when he landed their last five points, three from play to bring his tally to eight. Like Kelly he really is worth his weight in gold to this team and turned provider for Clare's solitary goal, winning possession and then weighting his pass perfectly for Kelly to attack at pace.
By then Waterford looked to have this game locked down with Tadhg de Búrca very effectively switching back to sweeping duties this week as Kevin Moran took up a deeper position. But Kelly's goal changed things.
The Clare management deserve some kudos for persisting with Darach Honan through a peripheral first half, the big man delivering late with two points, one which immediately followed the goal.
Colin Ryan had a big influence too on his introduction, landing a free and a point from play, but stepped aside for the last free, apparently on Davy Fitzgerald's orders from the sideline.
It's difficult to gauge where this leaves the teams for their championship meeting on June 5. Waterford's periods of ascendancy were long and sustained but the potential for psychological damage at losing from such a position is there.
On a footnote the culture of the head high challenge is prevalent again in the game. Refereeing officials tried to punish such instances with red cards a number of years ago but that lost momentum. Here Noel Connors caught Cunningham and avoided sanction while Collins made contact with Dillon's head.
Gleeson left the field with a blood injury. Nothing intentional but the duty of care must be paramount.
Scorers - Clare: T Kelly 1-6 (1f), C McGrath 0-8 (5fs), D Honan, C Ryan (f) 0-2 each, A Cunningham, D Fitzgerald, P O'Connor, D Reidy, P Collins all 0-1 each. Waterford: P Curran 1-9 (6fs, 1 '65), A Gleeson 0-3, J Dillon 1-0, J Barron, S Bennett 0-2 each, D Fives, B O'Halloran, K Moran all 0-1 each.
Clare - P Kelly 7; C Cleary 7, C Dillon 7, P O'Connor 6; J Browne 6, D Fitzgerald 8, B Bugler 7; D Reidy 7, C Galvin 6; T Kelly 9, C McGrath 8, P Collins 7; D Honan 7, S O'Donnell 5, A Cunningham 6. Subs: C Ryan 7 for Galvin (43), C O'Connell 6 for Collins (54), A Shanagher for O'Donnell (64).
Waterford - S O'Keeffe 7; N Connors 7, B Coughlan 7, S Fives 7; D Fives 7, T de Búrca 8, P Mahony 6; J Barron 8, K Moran 7; M Walsh 7, A Gleeson 8, J Dillon 6; P Curran 8, S Bennett 6, T Devine 6. Subs: C Dunford 5 for Devine (46), B O'Halloran 6 for Dillon (56), M Shanahan for Bennett (67), T Ryan for Walsh (70), Shanahan for Gleeson (63-65).
Ref - D Kirwan (Cork)