Hurling & Camogie

Stirring second-half comeback sees Clare beat Kilkenny to claim spot in first All-Ireland hurling final since 2013

All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship semi-final: Kilkenny 2-16 Clare 0-24

Clare Kilkenny
Clare's Peter Duggan bursts away from Kilkenny's Micky Carey during Saturday's All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship semi-final at Croke Park (seamus loughran)

Déjà vu was stalking Clare at half-time on Saturday. The whole county could feel it, from the supporters in Croke Park to those glued to televisions or radios to, more than anyone, the players and management in the changing room. A quarter-of-an-hour for Brian Lohan and his players to sort things out, to write a different All-Ireland semi-final story, to tell déjà vu what it could do with itself.

A third successive last-four defeat Kilkenny didn’t just look likely but pretty nailed on, certainly if Clare didn’t massively improve on their first-half performance. They went in five points behind when it really should have been at least double that. Just eight points registered while at other end goalkeeper Eibhear Quilligan had made just one fewer crucial save than Clare had managed scores from play.

The Feakle man was called on to make four stops when it looked like Kilkenny were in for goals. He kept their heads above water as out the field they looked lethargic and dysfunctional. The second half couldn’t be anything except completely different. Five minutes in and it was clear it would be. Clare scored three unanswered points and, although Quilligan’s only mistake of the day led to a Kilkenny goal to put them six up in the 47th minute, Tony Kelly responded immediately with his first point. Clare weren’t going to let history repeat itself, they were going to make their own.

From there until the end they outscored Kilkenny 11 points to four to book a place in the All-Ireland final for the first time since 2013. After the past two years against the Cats, and a hat-trick of Munster final defeats to Limerick there was, according to manager Brian Lohan, nothing else for it.

“Sometimes it’s just a case of ‘enough is enough’,” he said of the feeling at half-time.

“We have to respond, we have to give our supporters something to cheer about. We can’t let them down again.

“We feel that we’re a good team and we know that Kilkenny are a good team but came up thinking that we were better. To lose three in-a-row up here on the back of three in-a-row in Munster… Sometimes you just get fed up with that. It has to stop some time. But things turn around when you work hard and our lads worked hard.

“In the first half we were very frustrated. We had put down two really good weeks of training, had a good plan and we felt we had a good idea of what we wanted to do but just didn’t do it. Typical Kilkenny – you come up with great ideas and you’re just not able to do it. We were defending reasonably well and weren’t conceding a massive score but it was very frustrating at half-time that we didn’t do what we hoped we were going to do in that first half.

“There were so many fellas that didn’t perform in the first half, we just gave the guys another opportunity and, fair play, they toughed it out and did great in that second half.

“We had an awful lot of work done and to play as poorly as that in the first half, and we probably weren’t punished as badly as we could have been punished. There was an awful amount of frustration and we did rally in that second half and our big guys stood up.”

Clare Kilkenny
Clare's Shane O'Donnell takes on Kilkenny's Huw Lawlor (seamus loughran)

The action around Quilligan’s goal was the highlight of a first half devoid in much quality apart from some resolute defending.

While much of the pre-match conversation was concerned with who would pick up Kelly and O’Donnell, Kilkenny just went out and marked their positions. If O’Donnell went to centre-forward, Kilkenny’s centre-back Richie Reid was there on him, when he went into full-forward it was Huw Lawlor, in the corner it was Micey Butler or Tommy Walsh. Butler’s anticipated shadowing of Kelly didn’t materialise with Paddy Deegan taking up the job in midfield.

For 35 minutes it all worked perfectly for Kilkenny, with Kelly particularly anonymous, though he wasn’t alone among his team-mates. Man-of-the-match David McInerney, who completely blotted out Adrian Mullan all afternoon, and Quilligan were Clare’s sole even decent performers. Quilligan’s stops denied Cian Kenny, Mullan, Mikey Carey and Martin Keoghan, but he could do nothing about Eoin Cody’s remarkable effort in the 25th minute when he won the ball in the corner and, while surrounded by four Clare defenders flicked it up before batting it one-handed shot like Carlos Alcaraz smacking an ace at Wimbledon into the net.

That put Kilkenny five up, a lead they also held at half-time without every hitting close to top gear. When full-forward Billy Ryan smashed to the net after Quilligan spilled a mishit TJ Reid shot in the 45th minute it was entirely against the run of play and moved Kilkenny six ahead. But Clare didn’t panic and Kilkenny couldn’t respond.

“We were in a really strong position when we got the second goal,” said Cats boss Derek Lyng.

“We didn’t kick on when we should have. We tried to make a few changes to get a spark back into us but the momentum was with Clare and the reality is that they won all the battles.

“They were attacking it better, they were in front of the man and when you’re winning all the battles round the pitch… we struggled on the back of that. They deserved it in the second half.

“They’re a top-class team but I suppose from our own point of view we’re disappointed because we felt we didn’t show our best form today.”

Kelly was chief among Lohan’s “big guys” who stood up, scoring three points as Clare sprinted for the line, while substitutes Ryan Taylor, Ian Galvin and Aron Shanagher all made telling impacts in the forward line and Aidan McCarthy, who finished with 0-11, fired over six frees after the break to maintain the Banner momentum. The last of those, from a tight angle under the Cusack Stand in the 69th minute, put Clare ahead for good, 0-23 to 2-16. Kelly’s final point was the exclamation mark.

Enough was enough.

Kilkenny: E Murphy; M Butler, H Lawlor, T Walsh; D Blanchfield (0-1), R Reid, M Carey (0-1); C Kenny (0-2), P Deegan (0-1); A Mullen, TJ Reid (0-7, 0-4 frees, 0-1 65, 0-1 sideline), J Donnelly (0-2); M Keoghan, B Ryan (1-2), E Cody (1-0).

Subs: W Walsh for Keoghan (57), T Phelan for Mullen (63), C Fogarty for Ryan (67)

Clare: E Quilligan; A Hogan, C Cleary, C Leen; D Ryan, J Conlon, D McInerney; D Fitzgerald (0-2), C Malone; T Kelly (0-3), M Rodgers (0-2), P Duggan (0-1); A McCarthy (0-11, 0-9 frees), S O’Donnell (0-1), D Reidy (0-3).

Subs: R Taylor for Malone (50), I Galvin (0-1) for Fitzgerald (57), A Shanagher for Reidy (61), D Lohan for Duggan (70+3)

Blood sub: I Galvin for O’Donnell (24-27).