Young guns impress as Banner survive spirited Déise comeback
Clare 2-20 Waterford 3-16
If pre-season competitions are all about unearthing new talent for the business end of the year, then Clare are certainly making the most of it.
Expanding a panel is always challenging but new faces were to the fore as the Banner survived a spirited Waterford comeback to book their Co-Op Superstores Munster SHL final place against Tipperary next Sunday.
Diarmuid Ryan fired six points in a lively display, while Colin Guilfoyle bagged his second goal in two games and the likes of Shane Golden, Aidan McCarthy and Niall Deasy also impressed at various stages.
After narrowly missing out on a 2018 All-Ireland final place, Clare look to have added further strength in depth, much to the delight of joint-manager Donal Moloney.
"Young guys are coming in and all the lads that you see on show were part of last year's squad. They are eager, they are trying to take their opportunity so a lot of them are holding their hands up," Moloney said.
"They're showing great honesty and we have a lot of great guys who really want to wear the jersey for the county so they've worked very hard. Young guys coming through are putting on added pressure, which helps as well."
His counterpart Páraic Fanning watched on in horror as the Déise fell out of the traps in front of 3,039 in Fraher Field and left themselves with a mountain to climb at half-time when trailing by nine, 1-14 to 1-5.
They weren't deterred, however, with Stephen Bennett in sensational form up front - the Ballysaggart attacker finished with 2-12 - as two injury-time goals saw them just come up short in a grandstand finish.
Their fightback was all the more noteworthy without the Ballygunner contingent, and the injured trio of Tadhg de Búrca, Conor Gleeson and Darragh Fives, so Fanning has plenty of grounds for optimism.
"There were a lot of positives out of what was a difficult position at half-time. We were cross - they were cross with themselves - at half-time but at least we got it together in the second half," the Waterford boss said.
"I give our lads an awful lot of credit for the way they dug in and they showed what they're about with the way we finished the game."
They made a number of schoolboy errors early on and Clare capitalised to race into a nine-point lead, 0-11 to 0-2, after the first quarter with the roaming Ryan landing five first-half points.
Bennett was the only Waterford player to score in the first 50 minutes - they had no point from play in the first half - and he kept them in it with placed balls, but when Tony Kelly fired to the Déise net in the 26th minute, the game looked dead and buried as the Banner led 1-13 to 0-4.
Credit to Waterford - for whom Conor Prunty shone at full-back - though as Bennett responded with a brilliant individual goal to give them some hope at the break.
Former Hurler of the Year Austin Gleeson struggled to make an impression at centre-back but his half-time replacement Kevin Moran helped to turn the tide with an influential display at wing-back, driving forward at every opportunity.
A series of soft frees helped them gain a foothold and substitute Mikey Kearney had Waterford back within four points, 1-18 to 1-14, after an hour, before disaster struck.
Guilfoyle bagged a brilliant goal, having been played in superbly by sub Podge Collins, and Clare looked to have averted danger as they stretched their lead to eight with the end of normal time approaching.
Waterford kept chipping away, however, with Tommy Ryan hitting a quick-fire 1-1 before Bennett rifled a magnificent free to the net to leave one in it, but that was the last action.
A final with Tipperary is Clare's reward and having watched Liam Sheedy's Premier topple All-Ireland champions Limerick last month, Moloney knows what awaits.
"I watched Limerick and Tipp and it was more akin to a National League game at the end of March in terms of standard and intensity," Moloney said.
"This graph keeps going up in terms of where hurling is going, that's the reality. Teams are pushing on and Tipp have been training very hard for the last couple of months, so the final will be interesting."
SCORERS - Clare: D Ryan 0-6; N Deasy 0-5 (3f); T Kelly 1-2; C Guilfoyle 1-1; S Golden 0-3; D Conroy, R Taylor, A McCarthy 0-1 each. Waterford: Stephen Bennett 2-12 (1-10f); T Ryan 1-1; DJ Foran, K Moran, M Kearney 0-1 each.
CLARE - D Tuohy; J McCarthy, D McInerney, R Hayes; A McCarthy, C Cleary, C Malone; R Taylor, S Golden; N Deasy, T Kelly, D Ryan; C Guilfoyle, A Shanagher, M O'Neill. Subs: J Browne for Hayes (13), G Cooney for Shanagher (52), P Collins for O'Neill (56), D Conroy for Guilfoyle and M O'Malley for Taylor (both 60).
WATERFORD - B Nolan; D Lyons, C Prunty, N Connors; M Harney, A Gleeson, K Bennett; J Barron, S Roche; C Dunford, Shane Bennett, DJ Foran; T Ryan, Stephen Bennett, J Prendergast. Subs: K Moran for Gleeson and C Lyons for Harney (both h-t), M Kearney for Shane Bennett (45), M Walsh for Pendergast (52), J Henley for D Lyons (70, inj).
REF - K Jordan (Tipperary).