Stunning Clare display leaves Cats in a spin
Clare 4-22 Kilkenny 2-19
The hurling landscape looks a whole lot different today after the most significant result of the year so far jolted all preconceived ideas about what the season holds in store.
The view that Kilkenny were on a relentless march to yet another title was etched on the public consciousness ahead of yesterday's visit to Thurles, but Clare refused to believe their role was as mere facilitators for another black-and-amber blitz, instead turning the tables in spectacular style to book a first ever Division 1 final clash with Waterford.
It would be naive in the extreme to interpret the result as a sign Kilkenny are in decline but, nonetheless, the mere fact they were beaten so comprehensively will energise all their rivals as attention turns to the championship.
Clare and Waterford have league final business to conduct before they head for a Munster semi-final showdown on June 5 and will do so with lots of optimism after yesterday's two well-constructed victories.
Of course Clare's achievement was by far the more noteworthy as they made Kilkenny look very ordinary on a day when the All-Ireland champions failed to raise the efficiency levels anywhere close to where they wanted them.
Instead, they spent the afternoon in vain pursuit of a Clare team thriving in every sector.
That will have been very pleasing for Davy Fitzgerald, who had the luxury of being able to bring on five outstanding subs in Tony Kelly, Cathal O'Connell, Colin Ryan, Aaron Shanagher and Bobby Duggan.
And with David McInerney, Shane O'Donnell and Conor Ryan off yesterday's panel due to injury, it highlights just how much talent Fitzgerald will have at his disposal when he can deal from a full hand.
Kilkenny weren't at full strength either, but they won't be using that as an excuse for a terribly disjointed performance.
Clare hurled with far more intensity than their listless rivals right from the start and had the game all but won at half-time when they led by 3-12 to 0-10.Still, Kilkenny's well-earned reputation as a force that's always capable of fighting its way out of trouble left most in the crowd of 20,481 believing that a revival was possible and when TJ Reid fired in a goal from a free in the 42nd minute, it looked as if it might be the start of something special.
It wasn't. Clare quickly regained power and had pulled 13 points clear at the end of the third quarter after Conor McGrath pounced for their fourth goal in the 50th minute.
Kelly might have added a fifth goal a few minutes later but opted for a point, his second in quick succession as he marked his return to action after injury with exciting reminders of what he will bring to the scene when fully fit.
He was one of several Clare players who made a big impact, none more so that Colm Galvin, who turned in a superb display.
In addition to scoring five points from open play, he was at the centre of lots of other productive work in the middle third of the pitch. Kilkenny were unable to counteract him and they also had great difficulty in coping with Clare's forwards.
Attacking via route one isn't usually all that effective against a Kilkenny defence that's usually so good at closing down space.
The opposite was the case yesterday as Clare regularly found large tracts of unmanned territory, which they poured into with pace, power and poise.
They were three points ahead after a lively start and made a significant move in the 16th minute when John Conlon whipped in their first goal after sloppy Kilkenny defending offered up the chance.
Aaron Cunningham added Clare's second goal in the 20th minute and he pounced again six minutes later after more poor defending by an uncharacteristically unstable Kilkenny defence.
Their task was made all the harder by the departure of Jackie Tyrrell with what looked like a hamstring problem after 22 minutes.
It was a day they badly needed the James Stephens man at his best against such slick-moving opposition. An 11-point advantage at the break left Clare with a clear sight of a first league final appearance since 2005 and they never let up in a second half which produced some excellent scores by both teams.
That Kilkenny were forced to try for a goal from a free as early as the 42nd minute underlined the difficulties they were facing and while Reid managed to squeeze the ball past a massed Clare defence, it didn't have the desired effect on his colleagues.
They had a good spell early in the final quarter, scoring four unanswered points, but that was as good as it got as Clare unleashed a fresh burst of energy, which took them well clear.
It's the second successive year that the 1B winners have reached the final and, on the evidence of yesterday's performance, Clare are well-primed to take the title for the first time since 1978.
Granted, their forwards won't get anything like as much room against Waterford's compact defensive system, but there's so much variety in Clare's play that they can deploy a wide range of options. Most of them worked exceptionally well yesterday, but it was made much easier than expected by Kilkenny's out-of-sorts performance.
They are usually so good at emerging from rucks with ball in hand, but it was Clare who dominated that area yesterday. It underlined just how driven they were as they took their run of victories to 11 this season.
The Banner are hurling with real purpose as they gradually work their way towards the levels reached in 2013, which ended with an All-Ireland title.
Their judicious use of the hand-pass enabled them to create lots of space, which they exploited most effectively. They also cleverly mixed up their game, presenting Kilkenny with a range of problems which they could never cope with.
It was evident from early on the Cats were struggling to get to the pitch of game and with Clare's aerial bombardment proving surprisingly fruitful, it turned in to one those days Kilkenny will want to forget.
They will, of course, be a different force when they return for championship action against Dublin or Wexford on June 11 but, for now at least, the rest of the hurling world will feel a little better about itself.
Scorers - Clare: C McGrath 1-6 (2f, 2 '65s'), A Cunningham 2-3, C Galvin 0-5, J Conlon 1-1, D Honan, T Kelly 0- each, P Collins, C O'Connell, D Reidy 0-1 each.
Kilkenny: TJ Reid 1-7 (1-6f), J Farrell 1-1, P Walsh, W Walsh, K Kelly, C Bolger 0-2 each, R Hogan, J Power, C Buckley, 0-1 each.
Clare - P Kelly 7; O O'Brien 7, C Dillon 8, P Flanagan 7; B Bugler 8, C Cleary 7, P O'Connor 7; D Reidy 7, D Fitzgerald 7; J Conlon 8, C Galvin 9, A Cunningham 8; C McGrath 8, P Collins 7, D Honan 7.
Subs: T Kelly 8 for Conlon (51), C O'Connell 7 for Honan (57), C Ryan 6 for Reidy (63), A Shanagher for Cunningham (67), B Duggan for Collins (70).
Kilkenny - E Murphy 5; J Tyrrell 5, J Holden 5, S Prendergast 6; P Walsh 7, K Joyce 5, C O'Shea 5; L Ryan 7, C Buckley 6; W Walsh 7, TJ Reid 7, K Kelly 6; J Power 7, J Farrell 7, R Hogan 6.
Subs: B Kennedy 5 for Tyrrell (22), L Blanchfield 7 for O'Shea (55), C Bolger 7 for Kelly (63).
Ref - F Horgan (Tipperary).