The deaths of Monsignor Tommy Maher and Claus Dunne and the retirement of Henry Shefflin left Kilkenny hurling tinged with sadness last week but it was back to business as usual at Nowlan Park yesterday where precious Division 1A status was retained
Cillian Buckley's point in the final minute secured a victory that looked as if it would be achieved much more easily when Kilkenny trailed by a single point (1-8 to 1-7) after playing against a strong wind in the first half.
However, Clare dug in resolutely in the second half, extending Kilkenny to the very limit before being edged out. The luckless Bannermen had to play the final four minutes without Tony Kelly, which may well have been crucial.
He had given an inspired performance up to then, scoring 0-9 (0-7 from open play) and tormenting the Kilkenny defence at every turn.
Given how easily he played himself into the action all day, it's highly probable that he would have influenced the final few minutes but, unfortunately for Clare, he was forced out with a leg injury.
It typified Clare's season where luck rarely smiled on them as they suffered their way through five defeats, finishing with a drop to 1B. Two of the defeats were by one-point margins to Kilkenny in Nowlan Park on successive Sundays, adding to the frustration of a camp which has experienced only two wins in their last 12 games.
"I'm gutted with that result today. There's no other way to describe it. I really felt we were going to win," said Davy Fitzgerald.
There were times when Kilkenny supporters in 7,162 crowd must have feared that relegation was beckoning for the first time in 22 years as Clare took the challenge to the home team with championship-like intensity.
It asked serious questions of Kilkenny and, in typical style, it brought the right response. Strengthened by the return of the Ballyhale contingent and Richie Hogan, they raised their game to the required level to match much-improved Clare.
It looked at half-time as if Kilkenny might win relatively easy after trailing by a single point (1-8 to 1-7) despite playing against a strong wind. In fact, they led by three points after 19 minutes before Clare improved their strike rate, outscoring Kilkenny by 0-5 to 0-1 on the run-in to the interval.
They had a glorious chance to score a second goal in the 26th minute but Kelly whizzed a penalty wide. It was the only black mark on another otherwise excellent performance.
Shane O'Donnell pounced for a Clare goal - his third in two games against Kilkenny - in the fourth minute, but Kilkenny cancelled it out 14 minutes later with a sweet strike by TJ Reid off a Richie Hogan sideline cut.
Fitzgerald insisted afterwards that he wasn't overly concerned with the half-time situation, believing that Clare's style of play would be suited to playing into the wind.
And so it proved as they set about taking the game to Kilkenny in powerful bursts.
Kelly and O'Donnell looked as if they had the beating of any marker and, as Clare's confidence grew, the extent of the challenge facing Kilkenny increased considerably.
Clare led by two points after 57 minutes and held a one-point advantage in the 64th minute before Kieran Joyce and Walter Walsh pointed to put Kilkenny ahead.
O'Donnell equalised before Buckley hoisted a long-range point in the first minute of stoppage time.
It proved crucial, allowing Kilkenny to remain in the top flight after a campaign where the won three of six games. That's well down on their traditional strike rate but the key thing is that despite their indifferent from, they survived in the top flight.
"That was a serious game of hurling. Obviously, staying up in the top division was important to both teams, and it showed," said Brian Cody.
Kilkenny now find themselves in the unusual position of having no more competitive action until June 21 when they take on Wexford or the Leinster Round Robin runners-up in the provincial semi-final.
Clare have a much earlier championship start, facing Limerick in Thurles on May 24, a contest for which Fitzgerald was already planning even before he left Nowlan Park.
"The base is there but the hurling in summer will be a lot faster than what we had here," he said.
Despite dropping to 1B, Fitzgerald believes that the league yielded enough positive pointers to underpin a solid championship campaign.
"I'm disappointed to be relegated but I am proud of these lads. They answered a lot of questions today," he said.
So too did Kilkenny on what was a nostalgic occasion as their first outing since Shefflin announced his retirement.
Cody said he thought Shefflin might come back after they had their first chat but it didn't turn out that way.
Paying tribute to the most decorated player in hurling history, he said that Shefflin got the utmost out of himself and his career.
"It's not everybody in any walk of life can say that. He got the absolute maximum but then he was always prepared to do whatever it took to get the best out of himself," said Cody.
He categorised Shefflin's greatest legacy as the example he set for all other players.
"He was the quintessential team player," said Cody.
Was Shefflin the best ever?
"I haven't seen a better hurler than Henry. But then again, neither have most people," said Cody.
Man of the Match: Tony Kelly
Scorers - Kilkenny: TJ Reid 1-3, R Hogan 0-5 (2f), W Walsh, C Fennelly 0-3 each, C Buckley 0-2, K Joyce, M Fennelly 0-1 each.
Clare: T Kelly 0-9 (1f, 1 '65), S O'Donnell 1-3, D Reidy 0-3, J Conlon, S Morey 0-1 each.
Kilkenny - E Murphy 7; S Prendergast 7 P Murphy 7, J Holden 7; L Ryan 6, K Joyce 7, C Buckley 7; J Lyng 6, M Fennelly 7; W Walsh 7, M Ruth 6, TJ Reid 8; J Farrell 6, C Fennelly 7, R Hogan 7.
Sub: M Kelly 6 for Ryan (55).
Clare - P Kelly 7; D O'Donovan 7, D McInerney 7, J Browne 7; C Dillon 7, Conor Ryan 7, P Donnellan 7; P O'Connor 7, C Galvin 6; J Conlon 7, T Kelly 9, Colin Ryan 6; C McGrath 6, S O'Donnell 8, D Reidy 8. Subs: C O'Connell 5 for McGrath (21), S Golden 7 for Colin Ryan (54), A Cunningham for C O'Connell (63), S Morey for Galvin (63), B Duggan for Kelly (67).
Ref - C McAllister (Cork)
I was a boarding school boy in St Pat’s Armagh. When I was about 13, Fr Fergus Kelly, Dean of Discipline, presided over a solemn ceremony where me and my classmates signed contracts agreeing not to drink alcohol. When we got out of the room, Finbar McGrath, me and a few others tore up the enforced pledges and dropped them into the bin.
RETIRING GAA players generally go quietly into the night but that was never a realistic option for Henry Shefflin. Over recent months he had been repeatedly asked about his intentions. Ballyhale Shamrocks' prolonged interest in the club championship exposed him to further questioning. If he knew then he could not say, aware of the publicity a disclosure would stir. Once the campaign ended, with another All-Ireland medal on March 17, the time was nigh.
The greatest, the very greatest, of GAA players seem to epitomise in their personalities something essential about the nature of their counties. Christy Ring's bullish self-confidence and relish for the big stage was quintessentially Cork, Pat Spillane's blend of roguery, flair and charisma pure Kerry. Kevin Heffernan's legend was founded on metropolitan guile and cuteness, it's impossible to imagine him as anything other than a Dub.