New breed raise Banner hopes
CLARE 2-17KILKENNY 2-11
ALL-IRELAND U-21 HC FINAL
CLARE joint-manager Donal Moloney didn't mince his words at Semple Stadium on Saturday night.
His side had just captured a second All-Ireland title at this grade and he got straight down to it.
"We're looking at some of the best hurlers potentially in the history of Clare hurling, in terms of what they did here tonight," he declared.
"That's no offence to the guys of the '90s -- they were incredible in what they did. These are different type of players, though.
"They have incredible pace. It's unique in that we wouldn't have been always known for having wristy, pacey hurlers. These guys are incredible athletes, incredible ball players."
And it was hard to argue with this summation. Clare made this hard for themselves at times, but still managed to come out convincing winners.
At one stage in the first half, they opened up a 1-5 to 0-2 lead, but somehow by half-time, they were three points down.
Cathal O'Connell got their opening goal as part of a full forward line that would hit 2-11 between them on the night, but, with the maximum of efficiency and the minimum of fuss, Kilkenny hauled themselves back into the game.
Points from Kevin Kelly and Walter and Padraig Walsh -- brother of Tommy -- slowly brought Richie Mulrooney's side back into the game, but, in the dying embers of the half, they struck for two goals.
John Power won a dubious penalty, but there was no mistake with the finish as he blasted to the net.
Then, senior panelist Ger Aylward showed some neat footwork finding the back of the net with a ground stroke to give the Cats a 2-7 to 1-7 lead at the interval.
It could have been even worse for the Banner going in at the break, but Shane Golden was given only a yellow for a pull on Ollie Walsh that eventually forced the Dicksboro man from the field.
Kilkenny had the advantage of the breeze in the second half, but Clare were a different kettle of fish on the restart.
The Cats' obvious physical superiority might have been expected to tell, but the Banner never flinched.
At times, you feared for the likes of Clare's diminutive forwards, O'Connell and Padraic Collins. But time and again they emerged with possession from rucks with almost cartoonish bursts of pace.
O'Connell, in particular, sliced through Kilkenny time after time. He played a more withdrawn role in the second half as Clare got their running game going and after four quick-fire points that wiped out Kilkenny's half-time lead, Conor McGrath struck for a goal to put them four clear.
It was probably the least the Banner deserved as they might have been awarded a penalty earlier in the same passage of play.
They never looked back after that. Conor Ryan grew into the game at centre-back. The sliotar seemed to be drawn to Paul Flanagan, while Seadna Morey -- another player with scarcely believable pace when in possession -- franked his growing stature in the game.
And through it all was Cathal McInerney's calm excellence. The Cratloe man never put a foot wrong and the Cats couldn't find an answer to his wizardry.
Kilkenny just didn't fire after the break and could manage only a point from play in the second half as their forwards struggled. Even Cillian Buckley, who looked so at home in Brian Cody's senior team in the spring, couldn't exert the influence he would have liked, but Cats' boss Mulrooney had no qualms about the result.
"They are (an exceptionally talented team) and congratulations to them, we can't have any complaints.
"I thought the standard of hurling from both sides was fantastic -- in many other years, our team would have won the All-Ireland title. I thought we were in a very good position at half-time, had come back from being 1-5 to 0-2 behind to lead at the break by a goal (2-7 to 1-7).
"We tried to refocus again in the dressing-room, spoke to them about it, and thought we'd be able to push on in the second half, but, in fairness to Clare, that was just a phenomenal performance by them.
"When we beat them in 2010 (in the minor All-Ireland final) they were extremely gracious to us, their management team of Donal Moloney and Gerry O'Connor; it's my turn now. I couldn't speak highly enough of the Clare fellas, but I'm also really proud of our own lads."
For Clare, the bright lights are beckoning.
Ten of Saturday night's team and 26 of their 35-man panel are underage next year as Moloney hailed the work done by joint manager O'Connor and the rest of the back room team.
"Gerry O'Connor started at U-14 eight seasons ago," Moloney pointed out. "Gerry is my best friend. At the final whistle, I didn't want to let go of him! He asked me to come in at U-16 and the two of us have soldiered since.
"We've had dark days, but then we found Paul Kinnerk and Jimmy Browne about three years ago. Those two gentlemen added so much to the set-up. They have been just outstanding. We're really glad to have such an excellent team of people to work with.
"We were turned from going in five, six points up to three points down and two sucker-punch goals coming up to half-time. But there's a remarkable courage in these guys.
"They live for this game. They're a different breed of player.
"They want to win, they will do whatever is necessary in terms of preparation to win. You can't have that fitness level you saw in the second half without an incredible lifestyle and discipline."
For Clare, the future can't come quick enough.
Scorers -- Clare: C O'Connell 1-6 (0-4f), C McGrath 1-1, C McInerney 0-4, T Kelly (f) P O'Connor, S Morey, C Galvin, S Golden, A Cunningham 0-1 each. Kilkenny: K Kelly 0-6 (4f), G Aylward 1-1, J Power 1-0 (pen), W Walsh 0-2, G Brennan, P Walsh 0-1 each.
Clare -- R Taaffe 8; P Flanagan 9, D McInerney 7, K Ryan 7; S Morey 8, C Ryan 8, P O'Connor 7; C Galvin 7, S Golden 7; A Cunningham 7, P Collins 8, T Kelly 7; C McInerney 9, C McGrath 8, C O'Connell 8. Subs: P Duggan 7 for Cunningham (49), N Arthur for Collins (59).
Kilkenny -- D Walsh 7; J Corcoran 6, W Phelan 6, B Kennedy 6; J Lyng 6, R Doyle 7, L Harney 6; G Brennan 7, C Buckley 7; O Walsh 7, J Power 7, K Kelly 8; W Walsh 6, P Walsh 6, G Aylward 6. Subs: M Gaffney 6 for O Walsh (37), C Kenny for P Walsh (55).
Ref -- D Kirwan (Cork)