Hurling & Camogie

Clare bid to shake Kilkenny monkey from their back as they face Cats again in All-Ireland hurling semi-final

All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship semi-final: Kilkenny v Clare (Saturday, Croke Park, 3pm, live on RTÉ1 & BBC Two)

Clare and Kilkenny hurling match
Clare's Shane O'Donnell and Kilkenny's Adrian Mullen are likely to be key me when the counties clash in the All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship semi-final for the third season in-a-row at Croke Park on Saturday afternoon

Yes, it’s about Kilkenny. Of course it’s about Kilkenny, how could it not be? For the past two seasons Clare’s summers have been ended by the Leinster champions, the hopes of the Banner ripped to shreds by the Cats the last step before the All-Ireland final.

But it’s also about Limerick. For any team entering a season with Liam MacCarthy Cup aspirations, how could it not be? But for Clare especially.

Those two All-Ireland semi-final defeats didn’t just prevent Clare from returning to hurling’s biggest day for the first time since their last title win in 2013, but prevented them getting another cut at Limerick.

In 2022 Brian Lohan’s side drew with John Kiely’s all-conquering Treatymen in the Munster round robin before losing an extra-time thriller in the decider. But hopes of chance to find the marginal gains needed to get the better of Limerick in the All-Ireland final were obliterated at Croke Park in a 12-point thumping from Kilkenny.

Then last year Clare managed to find the little bit extra that had escaped them in 2022, handing Limerick their first Championship defeat since 2019 with a one-point round robin win.

But six weeks later, with the Munster title on the line, Limerick came out the right side of a one-point game.

While Clare may have been sick of the sight of their neighbours from across the Shannon, that also came with a desparate desire for another chance to turn them over, with Limerick having beaten Galway in the first All-Ireland semi-final. Kilkenny weren’t having it. It was much closer than in 2022, Kilkenny winning by three points and thankful for an astonishing injury-time save from Eoin Murphy to deny Peter Duggan.

But the upshot was the same. It was Kilkenny rather than Clare in the challenger’s corner opposite Limerick on All-Ireland final day.

Successive Munster final defeats to Limerick followed by two All-Ireland semi-final losses in-a-row to Kilkenny. The Groundhog Days on the biggest days have been, well, repeating themselves, for Clare.

They head into Saturday’s semi-final with two Championship losses on their ledger – both, of course, to Limerick.

It won’t be decided until Sunday if Limerick will be the final again, driving for five, and as Clare get ready to square off with Kilkenny, they can at least draw on recent wins over the Cats, including on the biggest non-Championship day of the year.

That League final victory at the start of April gave Clare their first silverware since winning the competiton in 2016 and set them up perfectly to host Limerick at a packed Cusack Park in Ennis to open the Munster Championship. The home defeat to John Kiely’s defending champions was a hefty blow after such a build-up.

Mikey Butler
Kilkenny corner-back Mikey Butler will be detailed to mark one of Clare's dangermen on Saturday, but will it be Tony Kelly or Shane O'Donnell (seamus loughran)

They managed to recover to make the Munster final, but not in the style they managed to last year, with winning margins of just one, two and three points over Waterford, Cork and Tipperary respectively.

They were level at half-time in the Munster final but it was a generally flat display and Limerick pulled away to win by six.

Wexford, with 14 men for more than a half, didn’t provide much of an obstacle in the All-Ireland quarter-final, so Clare head into today’s match in much patchier form than they did last year.

Kilkenny have had their dips too this summer, but are coming in on an upward curve off the back of their most impressive performance, the Leinster final demolition of Dublin, in which they blasted out of the gate to floor the Dubs on their way to a 16-point victory.

TJ Reid, who’ll push ahead of Cork’s Patrick Horgan as the Championship’s all-time leading scorer until Sunday afternoon at least, contributed 2-6, while Adrian Mullen, playing his first match since leaving the Leinster opener against Antrim injured, fired over 0-7 from play as though he had never been away.

Eoin Cody, who grabbed 1-5 from play against Clare last year, scored the early goal to set Dublin on their heels. Those three, along with the consistent John Donnelly and Martin Keoghan, will need to be dealt with to keep Clare in the game.

But Kilkenny will have problems to solve too, and two of those could prove the winning of the match.

Mikey Butler has shackled Tony Kelly the past two seasons, but that was with the Clare star closer to goal. Since returning from ankle surgery at the end of last year that prevented him starting for Clare until the Munster final, Kelly’s best work has been done around midfield, popping up across the full width of the pitch and running from deep.

Having Butler roam so far out wouldn’t necessarily get the best out of the the O’Loughlin Gaels corner-back, but his previous success on Kelly could tip the scales in that direction.

During the week Kilkenny legend Eddie Keher suggested Butler could instead be the man detailed to track Shane O’Donnell, whose blistering form has him leading Player of the Year conversations.

It’s a problem Kilkenny boss Derek Lyng will need to find an answer to, while Lohan will be posing his players one question: Does the big day losing stop now?

It’ll take their best display of the year to make that answer ‘yes’ and anything other than a tight game all the way to 70 minutes – and maybe beyond – appears unlikely.

But, with O’Donnell in the form he’s in, Kelly back, and a supporting scoring cast featuring David Reidy, Mark Rodgers, Peter Duggan and midfelder David Fitzgerald, it’s not out of the question. Clare by the skin of their teeth.