Conlon runs riot as clinical Banner take advantage of Déise misfortune
Munster SHC Round 2: Clare 2-27 Waterford 2-18
As the Angelus bell tolled the only bodies left on the Cusack Park sod were the victorious Clare squad as they soaked up their success with a celebratory puck-around.
Their first Munster SHC tie on home soil in 21 years went exactly to plan for Gerry O'Connor and Donal Moloney's men as John Conlon and Tony Kelly ran riot in attack to re-ignite their provincial campaign, but that was a far cry from Derek McGrath's situation.
McGrath is meticulous but even he couldn't have braced himself for what happened as only five of the side which fell to Galway in last year's All-Ireland final were on the pitch at the finish.
Starting without Austin Gleeson and Pauric Mahony was bad enough, but the losses of sweeper Tadhg de Búrca (shoulder), Noel Connors (back), replacement sweeper Darragh Fives (calf) and Barry Coughlan (hand) left them on the brink.
Kevin Moran's straight red card in the 49th minute for a frontal charge on Kelly was the straw that broke the camel's back and with three games in succession - and none on home soil - this could be the end of the line for the Déise.
"Today is crazy, you couldn't write it really," a flabbergasted McGrath said. "We found it hard to fix everything because we just couldn't have foresaw, you try and cover every eventuality but you just couldn't plan for that."
On the flip side, everything Clare hit turned to gold and last week's defeat to Cork was a distant memory as former Hurler of the Year Kelly got on an ocean of ball in the middle third to hit six points.
Kelly's floating role played to his off-the-cuff style and the Ballyea maestro enjoyed the freedom of the park. If they can continue to utilise him in that way and use him as the go-to player with possession, they will be a match for anyone given the wealth of talent at their disposal.
The decision to place Conlon at corner-forward was also decisive and his height and strength advantage over Shane Fives was a noticeable target with the usually slick Clare passing replaced by high deliveries which the bustling Clonlara forward lapped up.
Waterford had led by four points thanks to Maurice Shanahan's early goal but when De Búrca was forced out of the fray in the 14th minute, Clare took complete control to outscore them 2-8 to 0-5 and hold a healthy five-point, half-time advantage at 2-11 to 1-9.
Conlon was the key player during that period, winning the penalty converted by Peter Duggan - who was sublime from placed balls throughout and finished with 1-10 - before he found the net himself just minutes later having scorched through the Déise defence.
"The crowd said it all as to John Conlon's performance. He got a standing ovation. But he has been immense for us in back-to-back games. He is in an unbelievable vein of form," O'Connor said.
"He is developing into one of the real leaders on this team. It is not that he is the oldest guy on the team, he is really developing as a leader of this group, on and off the field."
Those sentiments were echoed by Moloney, who was delighted with how Clare reacted to their Rebel reversal and bounced back to form.
"The goals created that turning point for us, it kind of broke Waterford's momentum," a relieved Moloney added.
"We were under pressure coming out of Páirc Uí Chaoimh last week. We put everything into winning against Cork but we weren't able to get over the line. Today was different. Playing on our home patch, there was no losing here today."
Despite setbacks at every turn, Waterford were within five points when Tommy Ryan (a lively half-time substitute for the subdued Michael 'Brick' Walsh) saw his effort creep over the Clare line in the 42nd minute having initially been saved by Clare goalkeeper Donal Tuohy.
The dismissal of Moran put paid to their prospects as the Banner hit nine of the next 12 points to coast to success with O'Connor highlighting how the extra man gave his side the freedom to play a direct style.
"It had an impact, for sure. It gave us a really solid platform at the back. Davy Mac (McInerney) was really policing and managing in and around the 'D'. We were able to build play and not have to worry about avoiding the sweeper with our deliveries," he said.
McGrath's men deserve great credit for not throwing in the towel, however, when the easy option would have been to keep one eye on next week, but he faces the biggest task of his five-year reign over the coming weeks with a seriously depleted squad.
Jamie Barron and Stephen O'Keeffe aside, Waterford were without their seven most influential players for the second half. McGrath didn't see this bad fortune coming, no one could have, after "perfect preparation" but he knows things are unlikely to get easier any time soon.
"The mood in our camp was great and there was great positivity in terms of what we were doing. It's a lonely place here, four years ago we were 4-17 to 0-4 down after 25 minutes against Clare in my first league campaign," McGrath said.
"We're very proud of the lads in terms of staying going until the end and we're trying to carry that message. I wouldn't say it'll be more difficult next week but we're going to be light on bodies.
"It's hard for us, not to remain positive, but there has to be an element of where we are in terms of the bodies that we have available to us perhaps next week. We're not going to rush Austin and Pauric back if they're not right."
SCORERS - Clare: P Duggan 1-10 (1-0 pen, 9f, 1 '65); J Conlon 1-3; T Kelly 0-6; J Shanahan and C Galvin 0-2 each; C McGrath, S O'Donnell, D Fitzgerald and D Reidy 0-1 each. Waterford: M Shanahan 1-6 (0-6f); T Ryan 1-1; Stephen Bennett and J Dillon 0-2 each; T de Búrca, K Moran, Philip Mahony, C Gleeson, J Barron, T Devine and DJ Foran 0-1 each
CLARE - D Tuohy 7; P O'Connor 7, D McInerney 8, J Browne 7; D Fitzgerald 7, C Cleary 7, J Shanahan 7; C Galvin 7, C Malone 6; P Duggan 7, T Kelly 8, D Reidy 6; J Conlon 9, S O'Donnell 7, C McGrath 6. Subs: P Collins 6 for McGrath (60), S Morey for Malone (64), N Deasy for Reidy (66), M O'Neill for O'Donnell (68) D Corry for Conlon (68).
WATERFORD - S O'Keeffe 7; N Connors 7, B Coughlan 6, S Fives 6; D Fives 6, T de Búrca 6, Philip Mahony 6; C Gleeson 7, J Barron 7; K Moran 5, M Shanahan 7, M Walsh 5; J Dillon 7, T Devine 7, S McNulty 6. Subs: C Roche 6 for De Búrca (inj, 14), Stephen Bennett 7 for Connors (inj) and DJ Foran 6 for Walsh (both h-t), T Ryan 7 for D Fives (inj, 38), I Kenny 6 for Coughlan (inj, 45).
REF - P O'Dwyer (Carlow).