NORMAL service from Kilkenny as they checked in for another major final, but the big talking point after yesterday's first league semi-final in Semple Stadium was Davy Fitzgerald's trenchant criticism of Galway referee Alan Kelly and his assertion that match officials had it in for him personally.
Fitzgerald emerged from the dressing-room shortly after the game and calmly announced that Kilkenny were the better team on the day and deserved their win before launching into a tirade on how their 40th-minute goal -- a crucial score which heralded the start of Clare's demise -- should not have been allowed.
He claimed that the referee ignored him at half-time when he went to ask him a question and alleged that referees, in general, pander to the more successful counties. He also believes that he is being targeted personally by referees.
"I honestly believe that the referees have something in for myself. I think it's sort of 'I'll sort Davy out' -- that's the story. I think a number of referees have that and I'll be asking everyone to keep an eye on the championship to see do they take it out on me and my team because it has happened now on more than one occasion," said Fitzgerald.
"They ignore me completely too. Maybe they won't do that to Brians (Cody) and Declan Ryans of this world but when it comes to me, I'm not allowed to say anything. Can I take my beating? Yes. Can I take bad decisions? No, I can't."
He was furious over what he regarded as three possible officiating mistakes in the build-up to the goal, claiming that Kilkenny were awarded a line-ball in error, that Eoin Larkin should have been penalised for over-carrying prior to getting in a shot on goal and that Matthew Ruth, who finished the ball to the net after a save by Patrick Kelly, was in the square too soon.
"Referees have got to get these decisions right. The referee had three chances on that one. We got on to Alan Kelly a few times but you might as well be talking to the wall.
"Are referees afraid to make a mistake when it's the big teams that are involved? Are they afraid they won't get a bigger match or something? That sideline ball cost us a goal. How come those decisions always go against the Clares of this world? I think the decisions go with the bigger teams," said Fitzgerald.
Strong stuff from Fitzgerald, whose comments may well bring him to the attention of the disciplinary authorities, who won't be enamoured with his broad-brush questioning of referees and their motivations.
The goal which drew Fitzgerald's ire effectively ended Clare's challenge which had proceeded along a gritty course for 39 minutes. It put Kilkenny 1-8 to 0-8 ahead and, with the wind behind them, it was plain sailing from there to the finish line.
Kilkenny outscored Clare 0-12 to 0-6 in the final 28 minutes to qualify for an eighth league final in the Brian Cody era.
"Good to be in another final. It always is," said Cody, who acknowledged that their goal was hugely important in shaping the second half. "It gave us a bit of breathing space but we still had to continue working hard. If we weren't competitive and ready for the challenge, we'd have been in trouble."
Clare were stepping up in class after battling through Division 1B but their energy and application presented Kilkenny with a stiff challenge throughout the first half. Their attack enjoyed some success when they ran at the Kilkenny backs while, in defence, full-back Cian Dillon was a strong and secure presence.
Clare had a let-off in the 22nd minute when Eoin Larkin was fouled just before he poked the ball to the net and, while Kilkenny were awarded a penalty, Richie Power's drive was blocked. They missed a few other chances too but still led by 0-8 to 0-7 at the interval, despite playing against the wind.
Clare levelled it up early in the second half but it was to be their final push as Kilkenny's goal settled them into a relentless drive which yielded a string of points from all angles and distances.
Clare plugged on, albeit from a distance, but overall did enough to back up Fitzgerald's assertion that they are making real progress.
"We hung on in there. The important thing was that we weren't blown off the field like Galway were a few weeks ago. We've a long way to go but these lads will keep fighting," he said.
Meanwhile, Kilkenny head into another final off an impressive campaign where their only loss was against Cork, whom they will meet again on Sunday week. That defeat will provide an extra layer of motivation, although judging by Kilkenny's demeanour so far this year, their ambition to win every available prize is as intense as ever.
It took them longer than usual to get their finishing in working order yesterday but, once they did, their accuracy was hugely impressive. "I wasn't concerned (over misses in the first half). Once you're creating chances -- that's the important thing," said Cody.
Clare's opportunity channels were seriously disrupted in the second half and, as their game began to lose shape, they delivered far too many high balls in on a Kilkenny defence which happily plucked them from the sky. It's all part of the learning process for Clare and their outspoken manager, whose post-match outburst may well have been delivered with longer-term goals in mind.
After all, it's more important to be on the right side of close calls in the heat of a championship battle than in a league semi-final at the end of a campaign where Clare met their target of promotion.
Man of the Match: Matthew Ruth (Kilkenny)
Scorers -- Kilkenny: R Power 0-9 (6f), M Ruth 1-3, C Fennelly, M Fennelly 0-2 each, J Mulhall, TJ Reid, E Larkin, K Joyce 0-1 each.
Clare: C McGrath 0-6 (5f), C Ryan 0-3 (2f), N O'Connell 0-2 (2f), S Collins, L Markham, P Donnellan 0-1 each.
Kilkenny -- D Herity 7; P Murphy 7, JJ Delaney 7, J Tyrrell 7; T Walsh 8, B Hogan 7, R Doyle 7; M Fennelly 8, C Buckley 6; TJ Reid 6, R Power 7, J Mulhall 6; C Fennelly 8, E Larkin 6, M Ruth 9. Subs: M Bergin for Larkin (63), K Joyce for Walsh (63), C Fogarty for Doyle (68).
Clare -- P Kelly 7; D O'Donovan 7, C Dillon 8, C Cooney 6; B Bugler 7, P O'Connor 6, L Markham 7; N O'Connell 7, P Donnellan 6; F Lynch 6, S Collins 6, E Barrett 5; C Ryan 6, C McGrath 7, J Conlon 6. Subs: J Clancy for Lynch (61), A Cunningham for Barrett (61), S Morey for Collins (67).
Ref -- A Kelly (Galway)