Shell-shocked Clare will be left haunted by the ruthless manner in which Cody’s side took them apart from the off
Who saw this coming? Clare, who had elevated themselves to the rank of genuine All-Ireland contenders, spent their time in Croke Park yesterday in a state of bewilderment, occasionally stopping to see if they still had a pulse.
The team that fought to the death in a gripping Munster final with Limerick, and steamrolled Wexford in the last 15 minutes in Thurles, surrendered with a staggering frailty, swept aside by a Kilkenny side that played as if it had no doubt about its fitness for a place in the All-Ireland final in two weeks.
And for all the romanticising of Munster hurling, the first team through to the last day hails from the province considered to be the poor relation, a county that has already lost twice in the championship. None of that had any significance. Not of course that Kilkenny weren’t expected to produce a big performance. Just that Clare’s resistance was so feeble that it will haunt and riddle them for months to come. They had, as all teams do, a wariness of what Kilkenny might do, but what materialised could not have been found in the darkest corner of their imaginations.
They were beaten all ends up. The team which has lit up much of the championship with some spellbinding hurling, who looked set to explode on to Croke Park, instead went off at half-time looking a team lost for words to make adequate sense of what they had just been subjected to. Kilkenny were rampant, 14 points up, having comprehensively outplayed the pre-match favourites, and dominated virtually every position on the field.
In the second half Brian Lohan’s side found a bit more energy and began to stitch a few scores together but there was never any threat to Kilkenny’s designs on reaching a first final in three years.
The ground rules were laid down early. Paddy Deegan swamped Ian Galvin, forcing his first half substitution. Mikey Butler took up Tony Kelly and the player for whom this ground seemed ideally suited was hardly visible. He failed to score from play and his free-taking again failed him, transferred to Peter Duggan for the third match in a row. Clare’s shooting overall was abysmal, so bad you had eerie flashbacks of those dreary bygone days of heavy defeats when Biddy Early’s black magic was deemed the only credible explanation for such misfortune.
Even in their worst days they would have done well to clock up 24 wides, but they did here, the last being the final puck of the game from their goalkeeper Eibhear Quilligan, who saved an even worse defeat with a brilliant first half save from Eoin Cody. Kelly, dulled by the suffocatingly close Butler, hit five wides alone and all struck a post with another free attempt. Two other Clare attempts dropped short.
Kilkenny set up their team smartly. The ageless TJ Reid took home the man of the match award, having started in the right corner where Paul Flanagan, who improved in the second half, couldn’t lay a hand on him. Reid’s ten points from play were a lesson in finishing to the team on the receiving end, even if in the first half he had Kilkenny’s only wide. Clare hit 11 in the same time period and, 0-6 to 1-17 down, at the interval there was no possible way back. In the hours before the start a rumour swept around the ground about the fitness of John Conlon. Clare’s fears were realised when the announcement was made shortly before throw-in that he would not be playing, replaced by Páidí Fitzpatrick.
Conlon, an All-Star winning forward, was converted into a defensive lynchpin under Lohan’s reign. Though now in the twilight of his career at 33, he has always been meticulous about his fitness.
It is doubtful that a fit Conlon would have made much difference. But Fitzpatrick appeared a curious choice, having made his first championship start at 30 in 2021 and without any championship hurling this year. He is a good hurler but not blessed with pace. In the first half Adrian Mullen went to the right wing and made hay, scoring four points from play, and finishing with five.
Eoin Cody had the beating of Rory Hayes, picked despite being hauled off after just eight minutes against Wexford. Hayes did improve as the game went on, but in the earlier stages the defence was in trouble. Conor Cleary made a couple of defiant catches when Kilkenny tested him in the air, but got turned over in possession and coughed up two points.
The Kilkenny pressure was relentless but what you expected. In the first half an early high ball in the direction of Duggan was spectacularly won in the air by the soaring Huw Lawlor, who convincingly won that duel. Clare didn’t help their cause with desperately poor deliveries to their forwards, and only David Fitzgerald made any inroads in the first half, scoring two fine points, with Shane O’Donnell the only other forward to register. Six points in the first half was a pitifully low return for a county team in an All-Ireland semi-final.
Mossy Keoghan scored Kilkenny’s first goal just before half-time, beating Quilligan at the second attempt, and in the 42nd minute the man who replaced him, Walter Walsh, caught a high ball and sent Cian Kenny through for another goal.
When Duggan had a chance in the first half, Richie Reid made a vital block. There simply was no way through.
O’Donnell scored four points and Fitzgerald and Diarmuid Ryan each had three. But there was no beating back the black and amber tide. Brian Cody’s 22nd All-Ireland semi-final turned out to be one of his easiest; the first being way back in 1999, also against Clare.
“I never spoke to the lads about it myself, but I’m sure it was an issue with them that we did not want to lose an All-Ireland semi-final for the third year in a row,” said Cody afterwards.
“You’d crawl on your hands and knees to get to an All-Ireland final. Look we’ve a day’s more recovery than whoever wins between Limerick and Galway.”