Galway show steel again but doubts remain
Galway 1-17 Clare 2-13
If doing things the hard way heightens the sense of achievement, Galway will be really buzzing today after providing yet another illustration of their propensity for living through the best and the worst of times in the same game.
They did it against Kilkenny in the Leinster final replay when they had an 11-point lead cut to one and again in the drawn All-Ireland semi-final when Clare wiped out a nine-point advantage.
It was the same in Semple Stadium yesterday when, after powering nine points clear after 20 minutes, Galway were reined in by a Clare team that put themselves in a position to win around the three-quarter mark.
By then, they had reduced Galway's lead to a single point and looked very much like a side that were poised to drive on. On a warm afternoon, their energy levels appeared to be higher than their opponents' but to Galway's credit, they dug in for another gritty finish.
For a fourth successive season, they were involved in a dramatic one-point winning margin in the All-Ireland semi-finals and for the third time (2015-17-18) they came out on the right side. It's testament to their doggedness under intense pressure, but the question arises as to why they allow themselves to be squeezed into such tight corners.
Jonathan Glynn's 20th-minute goal put them 1-9 to 0-3 ahead after dominating with almost the same authority as in the opening period in the drawn game eight days earlier.
It was, in many ways, a replica of the first encounter when a mixture of excellent Galway play and sloppy resistance by Clare swung the balance in favour of the defending champions.
For whatever reason, Clare were playing with a nervousness and lack of precision that made it relatively easy for Galway to build a sizeable score.
Dropping Colm Galvin back in a sweeper role, which worked so spectacularly in the drawn game, wasn't nearly as effective this time, mainly because Galway played much smarter.
They were more accurate in their deliveries, making it harder for Galvin to influence the flow and with many of his colleagues struggling further afield, Galway were allowed to play with the swagger of champions.
Up to the 20th minute, that is, after which there was a dramatic change. They failed to score again before half-time, by which time Clare had pared three off the lead to leave them trailing by 1-9 to 0-6.
Given their positive experiences in the drawn game, Clare had every reason to feel quite confident heading into the second half and while they fell seven points behind after 42 minutes, they were beginning to look like a team that were winding up for a massive effort.
And so they it proved. Over the next 14 minutes, they out-scored Galway by 2-3 to 0-3, the goals coming from Shane O'Donnell (43) and Peter Duggan (54).
Both were splendid individual efforts. O'Donnell's sheer persistence took him through foes and fouls before beating James Skehill, while Duggan's goal was beautifully taken when it looked like he might have gone for the safer option of a point.
With the momentum behind them, Clare were in a really good position, whereas Galway found themselves back in dangerously familiar territory.
Once again, their character was being tested and, just as they had done in their previous two games, the response was persuasive.
Joe Canning and David Burke led the resistance and while there were times when it looked as if it might crumble, Galway just about managed to hang on.
Clare were denied by Skehill (below) and the post in the 68th minute as Aron Shanagher almost got in for a goal that would have put the Banner two points clear.
Galway responded immediately with a superb point from a line ball by Canning though, so instead of being two points clear, Clare were two behind.
They cut it to one and had a chance to draw level but, in an uncharacteristic lapse, Duggan hit a free too low, allowing Galway to get in a block and clearance.
Niall Burke re-established a two-point lead for Galway and while Duggan sent over a free five minutes into stoppage time, the equaliser, which would have sent the game into extra-time again, was beyond them.
They will feel that the gods turned against them late on, but when they carry out a detailed analysis of the two games, the failure to get out of the blocks much quicker will be a source of puzzlement and irritation.
They received a pre-match boost when, unsurprisingly, Gearoid McInerney was ruled out of the Galway team with a calf injury sustained in the drawn game.
Micheál Donoghue opted to transfer Joseph Cooney from wing-forward to wing-back, with Padraig Mannion moving to No 6 and Niall Burke coming into the attack.
The switches worked quite well, although there were times when McInerney's power was missed.
Galway are back in the All-Ireland final for the third time in four seasons, giving them a sizeable experience advantage over Limerick, none of whom have played in a senior decider before. Nonetheless, John Kiely's men will be quite confident of ending a 45-year wait for the title.
Their style will present Galway with a different type of test to anything encountered so far this summer and, with their confidence levels rising all the time they won't be overawed by the challenge.
Still, having survived four very difficult tests (two each v Kilkenny and Clare), Galway will feel that they are perfectly primed to complete the two-in-a-row for the first time in 30 years, even if they are not playing with the fluency of last year.
Whether it comes together in the final remains to be seen but they will certainly be worried about the tendency to fade out of games.
They did it from positions where they had big leads in their last three games but what would happen if they hit a slump at a time when they had no such luxury? Limerick will try to test that case.
Scorers - Galway: J Canning 0-8 (4f, 1 s/l); J Glynn 1-0; C Whelan 0-3; David Burke, N Burke 0-2 each; C Mannion, C Cooney 0-1 each. Clare: P Duggan 1-6 (0-6f); S O'Donnell 1-1; I Galvin 0-2; T Kelly, P Collins, J Conlon 0-1, A Shanagher 0-1 each.
Galway - J Skehill 7; A Tuohey 7, Daithi Burke 7, J Hanbury 6; A Harte 7, P Mannion 7, J Cooney 7; J Coen 7, David Burke 8; C Whelan 8, J Canning 9, C Mannion 6; N Burke 7, J Glynn 7, C Cooney 6. Subs: S Loftus 6 for Hanbury (56), J Flynn 6 for C Cooney (59), D Glennon for Glynn (72).
Clare - D Tuohy 7; P O'Connor 7, D McInerney 8, J Browne 6; S Morey 6, C Cleary 7, J Shanahan 6; C Galvin 7, D Fitzgerald 6; P Duggan 7, T Kelly 6, D Reidy 6; P Collins 7, J Conlon 7, S O'Donnell 8. Subs: I Galvin 7 for Reidy (34), C Malone 6 for Fitzgerald (44), R Hayes 6 for O'Connor (58), M O'Malley 6 for Shanahan (61), A Shanagher 7 for Collins (64).
Ref - F Horgan (Tipperary).