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Daly's Dublin deserve glorious opportunity

While it's perfectly understandable that today's League final goes ahead in Croke Park, with the under 21 All-Ireland football final acting as the curtain-raiser, I'm still not sure it will prove to be the correct decision.

Some of the Galway contingent may stay in their seats for the day's main event, but it's highly unlikely their Cavan counterparts will. The Cavan hurlers are the equivalent of the Kilkenny footballers; winless and propping up Division 4 of the NHL. Like the big ball in Kilkenny, I don't think hurling or who wins the League is likely to rank too highly on their list of priorities.

The spectacle of an estimated 15-20,000 Cavan men, women and children streaming towards the exits just before throw-in, or at best at half-time, is a live possibility and vast swathes of empty seats and a sparse attendance will do nothing for the atmosphere and sense of occasion this game deserves.

I think a double-header with the Division 2 final, in Thurles, would have made more sense. Thurles is only a half an hour from Kilkenny city and I can't see the Kilkenny supporters travelling in the same numbers to the capital. The genuine Dublin supporters would have travelled anyway, and with the Clare and Limerick crowd, plus the neutral interest from the surrounding hurling areas, Semple Stadium may well have attracted a bigger audience, and presented a far livelier atmosphere.

Let's hope I'm wrong because the Dublin players have earned the right to a big day out this afternoon. After the way last season ended with that catastrophic defeat to Antrim, this was always going to be a pivotal year for this side. The almost unforgivable nature of that performance undid all the progress that appeared to have been made under Anthony Daly and I'm sure he contemplated walking away in the aftermath.

But credit where credit is due. The players have really fronted up and the performances to date, both in the Walsh Cup as well as the League, have affirmed their rehabilitation. With 17 wides, they should really have beaten Kilkenny, yet got the last three scores to salvage a draw. They blew it against Galway with a similar wides tally and were better value than the one-point win they managed over Tipp. They came from behind to draw with Waterford; beat Cork in a game they had to win, and probably most impressively, bossed both Offaly in Tullamore and Wexford in Wexford Park.

That level of consistency hasn't been there in either of the last two years, and is the best evidence that this side has made significant strides forward. Even if results elsewhere hadn't gone their way to get them here today, no side would have taken more positives from the early part of the season. Of course, having qualified for the final, the challenge now is to back up what they've achieved with a real performance this afternoon.

In that regard, while the amount of possession they have managed to win is a huge positive, it's been offset by a relatively poor return against the better sides. But it has to be acknowledged that they were the highest-scoring side in Division 1.

Obviously Conal Keaney's decision to throw in his lot with the hurlers has been a huge boost and his form, particularly in some of the earlier games, confirmed as much. The big game experience he brings from his time with the footballers, in addition to his physique and ball-winning ability, along with the abrasive qualities Ryan O'Dwyer brings to the mix, mean Dublin's two high-profile additions have really strengthened their hand. However, the real dividend has been the emergence of the younger talent up front. Daire Plunkett, Conor McCormack and Paul Ryan have brought an energy and dynamism to the attack that they didn't heretofore possess, and overall it looks a physically stronger and more athletic team than at any time under Daly's watch.

While Dublin's graph seems to be on an upward curve, there is evidence that Kilkenny's star may be waning. They were always going to be up for the opener against Tipperary, but their form since hasn't been as consistent as I expected nor as Brian Cody would have liked. Unquestionably there were aspects of the campaign that are likely to have caused a certain amount of anxiety in Kilkenny.

The failure to close out the game and score in the last 16 minutes against Dublin; allowing Cork to almost snatch victory in a game that appeared over at half-time and defeat to Galway after a dream start, top that particular list. These are the type of failings one doesn't associate with Kilkenny and especially not this team. In their defence the injury list has been horrendous and different players have gone down at different times to add to the list of long-term casualties.

When you look at who's unavailable this afternoon -- Tommy Walsh, Richie Power, Henry Shefflin, John Tennyson, Michael Fennelly and Aidan Fogarty -- and factor in that Michael Rice, Jackie Tyrrell and JJ Delaney were missing at various stages in the earlier rounds, it's a miracle and testament to their resources that they even made the final. Of course it has created an opportunity for others and David Herity in goal, Paddy Hogan, Matthew Ruth and Colin Fennelly all get the chance to stake a claim for the summer.

As strong as the Kilkenny panel is, and on paper they have named a formidable side, they are still down a third of their first-choice starting 15. In that context, Dublin will feel that a glorious opportunity exists. By his very nature, Daly will have been working overtime to convince his players of the possibilities the day can bring. On that basis I think they'll produce a big performance.

Yet, when it comes down to it, it's hard to see Dublin winning the possession they managed a month ago in Croke Park. Factor in too that they shipped three goals on that occasion, and you wonder if that little bit of naivety at the back will be punished again. Unfortunately, I think it will. Kilkenny to win.

Last night's game was a hugely disappointing result for Clare, it confines them to another season of division 2 hurling and with such a young team that's not the place they want and need to be.

Clare have learned nothing from running up cricket scores against counties like Down, Kerry and Westmeath. They probably learned more about themselves in last night's match than they did in their previous three games.

Clare hurled well for long periods, especially in the second half, but the second goal they coughed up five minutes before half time was a killer blow and Donal Touhy will have to hold his hands up and admit it was a score that shouldn't have been conceded. I have to give credit to Clare, given the precarious position they were in at half time they came out fighting tooth and nail in the second half.

Darach Honan and Conor McGrath got two superb goals that brought Clare right back into it. Credit also goes to Donal O'Grady for the the changes he made, moving Tom Condon to fullback on Honan and bringing Gavin O'Mahoney to wing back to curb the influence of John Conlon.

Clare ran out of legs at midfield in the last ten minutes at but it was Kevin Downes second goal that was the pivotal score in determining the outcome. There will be a steward's inquiry in the Clare the defence as to how he was allowed run 50 yards before finishing excellently to the back of the net.

Hopefully from a Clare perspective the powers that be will look at the hurling league as it's currently structured. But Limerick ultimately deserved to win the game on the night and they may very well pose Waterford some problems later on this summer.

Dublin v Kilkenny,

TG4, 4.0

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