Clare lack the know-how to knock out Cats
Kilkenny 3-10 Clare 1-15 Allianz NHL Division 1a
Any time the seasoned champion records a marginal victory against the young pretender, the old warrior feels entitled to view the manner of the result on their terms.
Throughout the second half, Clare had consistently penned the All-Ireland champions back on to the ropes. They jabbed away hard at Kilkenny, hitting them with a relentless and heavy barrage of punches. Kilkenny were stumbling but Clare just couldn't land the haymaker they needed to knock them to the canvas.
Kilkenny, as they invariably do, just toughed it out. Clare's wide tally of 18 really told the story of the match in comparison to Kilkenny's seven, but Brian Cody still didn't feel afterwards that his side were lucky to win under those circumstances.
They needed the result and they got it. They got more scores from play than Clare. If Clare had gone ahead, would Kilkenny have ramped their intensity up another notch to get the result? That's an unknown but Cody and Kilkenny are entitled to express their own view given their experience and the magnitude of their achievements.
The young pretenders still blew a glorious opportunity. Clare controlled the second half but 12 wides in that period completely undermined their chances of winning the match.
Clare have made massive strides in the past 15 months but yesterday proved that you just can't fast-track experience, savvy and know-how. Six of those second-half wides were panic shooting from distance, but learning those harsh lessons in the crucible against Kilkenny is part of the journey Clare have to undertake before they can get to where they want to go.
Clare will be disappointed with their profligacy and their failure to often choose better options, but there were many positives attached to their performance. Incredibly, they restricted Kilkenny to just six shots at the target from play in the second half.
Kilkenny only got one score from that paltry number of chances but that single strike highlighted the volume of craft and experience Kilkenny have in their locker.
Michael Fennelly and Eoin Larkin had made a combined total of just four plays in the opening 15 minutes of the half when they collaborated to engineer the game's defining score.
Aidan Fogarty finished the move when drilling the final pass past Pa Kelly. The score put the Cats only four points ahead but Kilkenny goals often carry more weight than the three extra points on the scoreboard. The score altered the mood in the ground and it shifted the momentum of the match because Clare had been rampant up until that point of the second half. Five wides inside the opening five minutes, though, established a trend that Clare just couldn't break.
Beating Kilkenny always requires goals and with the experience Kilkenny were missing in their full-back line, yesterday was an opportune time to go hunting for green flags. Clare did create three good goalscoring opportunities but they only took one and they have now failed to score more than one goal in a big game for the last 12 months.
For the majority of the match, Clare played with just one forward inside the 45-metre line, with Shane O'Donnell operating as that spearhead for most of that time. O'Donnell did get on a lot of ball in the first half when scoring one point, setting up a goal chance, being fouled for a converted free and setting up another point. Yet he was restricted to just five plays after the break when Clare changed the nature of their attacking play and began shooting more from distance with the breeze at their backs.
Clare have worked extremely hard on fitness and strength and conditioning over the winter and they were able to physically match up to Kilkenny. They won the puckout battle 28-22, which included 17 Kilkenny puck-outs. They were strong in the tackle but the short possession game that governs much of their style was always going to come under close scrutiny.
Putting the ball at such risk can be lethal against Kilkenny but Clare survived. They did turn possession over on 13 occasions when trying to stitch their short game together but they were still able to dominate possession.
After Colm Galvin and Ger Aylward swapped goals between the fifth and seventh minutes, the sides were level on six occasions in the first half before the impressive Lester Ryan gave Kilkenny a three-point cushion on the stroke of half-time with a superb goal.
Although the first-half free-count had been 10-6 in Clare's favour, some marginal calls had gone Kilkenny's way. After Anthony Stapleton gave one of those calls to Kilkenny in injury time, Davy Fitzgerald roared out to the referee that he was "giving Kilkenny everything". Standing just metres away, the smile on Cody's face was still clearly visible beneath a baseball cap and hood.
Clare came out blowing up a storm after the break but they couldn't make it count. There were stages when both teams appeared to be playing tennis with the amount of ball that was being returned between the half-back lines but Clare had the deficit down to one with 15 minutes left on the clock.
Three successive Eoin Larkin points from placed balls got Kilkenny back on track but Clare never relented and they charged for the line. Kilkenny were defending desperately in their own half when Stapleton blew the full-time whistle exactly after the two minutes of stoppage time had elapsed.
Fitzgerald animatedly remonstrated with the referee, before shaking hands with Cody. By that stage, the remains of the day were clear; Fitzgerald and his young pretenders were close and are getting closer; Cody and his seasoned champions are still standing strong.
Man of the Match: Colin Ryan (Clare)
Scorers – Kilkenny: E Larkin 0-5, (4fs, 1 '65), A Fogarty 1-2, G Aylward and L Ryan 1-1 each, R Hogan 0-1. Clare: Colin Ryan 0-11 (10fs), C Galvin 1-0, S O'Donnell, J Conlon, T Kelly, D Honan 0-1 each.
Kilkenny – E Murphy 7; P Hogan 7, K Joyce 7, C Fogarty 7; T Walsh 8, B Hogan 8, P Walsh 8; L Ryan 8, M Fennelly 7; M Rice 7, R Power 7, E Larkin 7; G Aylward 7, R Hogan 7, A Fogarty 8. Subs: C Fennelly 7 for Rice (43), W Walsh 7 for Power (53), M Ruth 7 for Aylward (60).
Clare – P Kelly 7; D O'Donovan 8, D McInerney 7, S Morey 8; B Bugler 8, P Donnellan 8, N O'Connell 7; P O'Connor 7, Conor Ryan 7; Colin Ryan 8, T Kelly 8, F Lynch 7; S O'Donnell 8, J Conlon 7, C Galvin 7. Subs: E Barrett 7 for McInerney (60), D Honan 7 for Lynch (63).
Ref – A Stapleton (Laois)