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League run to be a Clare catalyst

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Clare’s Tony Kelly gets his shot away as Kilkenny’s Joey Holden closes in during their Allianz HL Division 1 semi-final in Semple Stadium, Thurles two weeks ago. Pic: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Clare’s Tony Kelly gets his shot away as Kilkenny’s Joey Holden closes in during their Allianz HL Division 1 semi-final in Semple Stadium, Thurles two weeks ago. Pic: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Clare’s Tony Kelly gets his shot away as Kilkenny’s Joey Holden closes in during their Allianz HL Division 1 semi-final in Semple Stadium, Thurles two weeks ago. Pic: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

It's hard to escape the comparison between Waterford's eye-catching run to last year's Allianz Hurling League title and what Clare will attempt to complete tomorrow - against, of all teams, the Déise.

Belying the doom-laden theory that life in Division 1B equates to hurling purgatory, Waterford emerged from the second tier and duly blazed a trail to the 2015 spring summit.

They had drawn with Limerick on the opening night and then won seven on the spin, culminating in a ten-point victory over Cork in the final.

Now it's the turn of Clare to disprove the (now obviously less compelling) thesis that you won't win anything from 1B.

Better

They've actually gone one step better than Waterford by winning every match (seven and counting) to reach the final.

Can they seal the deal?

Based on the once-off evidence of the two semi-finals in Thurles ... yes they can.

For while Waterford were deadly efficient - after a so-so first half - in their 11-point victory over Limerick, what followed was even more compelling.

It wasn't so much Clare's nine-point margin but the manner of its execution and against whom.

True, Kilkenny have rarely been so defensively chaotic. They had never leaked so high a total - 4-22 - under Brian Cody. But it was still Kilkenny.

If the Cats absorb this harsh lesson and re-emerge in more flinty mood to retain their September crown, no one will be overly surprised.

By far the more intriguing part of that semi-final was what it said about Clare.

For the first time since their All-Ireland coronation in 2013, they resembled that team ... a team that now warrants mention in any serious debate about the destination of Liam MacCarthy.

Waterford, it must be said, are in that select crew too. Their consistency over the past season-and-a-half (yielding just three defeats, to Tipperary in the Munster final, Kilkenny in the All-Ireland semi-final, and Dublin at home in March) provides statistical proof of a team that won't go away.

They have built on last season's rich promise. Even if goalscoring had become an issue, they went some way to redressing that 'problem' by nailing three in the second half against Limerick.

Moreover, the demarcation lines of scoring responsibility are spreading. Maurice Shanahan missed the semi-final through injury while Pauric Mahony's game-time is being carefully rationed as he eases back from last year's broken leg, but others have taken the baton.

Patrick Curran amassed 1-10 against Limerick, edging ahead of Shanahan as their top scorer in the league - further proof of Waterford's free-taking riches.

But Shane Bennett was the real star turn of their attack, tormenting the Limerick defence with his exuberance, his pace and sublime skill set.

Thus, one year older and more streetwise, this summer could herald a more potent Deise than we witnessed last season.

And it's not as if this has come at the expense of a more lenient rearguard: they will still pack their defence with bodies and hit you on the counter.

All things considered, you can make a strong case for the holders. Even the bookies are leaning narrowly that way.

And yet Clare were so good against Kilkenny. Davy Fitzgerald and his managerial brains-trust won't be overly pleased at the concession of 2-19, but that conveys a false impression of Kilkenny forwards making hay - even TJ Reid, while landing a typical 1-7, was confined to just one point from play.

When it came to the hook, block and tackle count, Clare were streets ahead. Colm Galvin was as sharp as a pin, embellishing a dominant midfield display with five points from play.

Aaron Cunningham's first half haul of 2-3 was crowned by a statement-making high catch, barrelling contact with a hapless Cat and long-distance point.

Meanwhile, John Conlon's sheer physical presence seemed to spook Kilkenny's usually reliable 'keeper (Eoin Murphy) and full-back (Joey Holden). Conlon subsequently departed with an ankle injury, the game already won, but he'll be missed now against Waterford.

And yet when you consider the sparkling form of Conor McGrath, the availability of a fit-again Tony Kelly (0-2 off the bench) and Podge Collins (70 minutes of invaluable game-time the last day) then it's clear that Davy Fitz has options. Lots of gilt-edged options.

We suspect they won't enjoy the same latitude here. The looming reality of a Munster rematch on June 5 is another factor that may, or may not, skew the meaning of tomorrow.

But our hunch is that Clare are back and they mean business.

BOYLESPORTS ODDS: Clare 6/5 Draw 15/2 Waterford 5/6

VERDICT: Clare

HL DIVISION 1 FINAL: clare v WATERFORD, TOMORROW, 3.30 (LIVE TG4)


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