Christy O'Connor: Clare facing a Kilkenny side back in familiar territory

Kilkenny's Cian Kenny (left) and Clare's Cathal Malone in action during last year's All-Ireland SHC semi-final Picture by Philip Walsh
Kilkenny's Cian Kenny (left) and Clare's Cathal Malone in action during last year's All-Ireland SHC semi-final Picture by Philip Walsh

BEFORE Kilkenny played Clare in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final, they found themselves in a peculiar place, territory so unrecognisable and unfamiliar that the very thought of even going back there again was anathema to everything Kilkenny knew throughout their modern history.

In the first 21 years of Brian Cody’s reign, Kilkenny played in 18 All-Ireland semi-finals, and won 16. Those only two defeats came in the first half of the 2000s before Kilkenny went on to win all 11 of their next final-four clashes.

They looked set to continue that trend in the 2020 All-Ireland semi-final when they led Waterford by seven points at the break. Kilkenny normally don’t lose All-Irelands but they certainly don’t lose them from those positions. And then they did. Waterford blitzed them in the third quarter by 1-11 to 0-4 and were fully deserving of their four-point victory.

A year later, Cork also turned Kilkenny over at the same stage, albeit after extra-time. Yet Cork should never have allowed the match to go to extra-time. Their final winning margin of five points would have been far greater only

for Kilkenny goalkeeper Eoin Murphy giving an exhibition. Kilkenny still shipped 1-37 the

same afternoon.

Two successive All-Ireland semi-finals defeats was a shock. Three in-a-row was unconscionable. And unacceptable. “No way was that happening today,” said TJ Reid when interviewed upon receiving his man-of-the-match after last year’s semi-final when Kilkenny had dismantled Clare.

Despite having stuttered over Wexford in the All-Ireland quarter-final, Clare went into the match as favourites. Kilkenny had been really poor in the Leinster final win against Galway. But Kilkenny’s training sessions and internal matches in the lead-up to the Clare game were reportedly so impressive that Cody felt they were as good as anything Kilkenny experienced during their glory years.

Unlike other teams, Kilkenny have always been more comfortable with a four-week training block than a more regular run of matches. Privately, Cody was never a huge fan of the round robin because it never allowed Kilkenny the time to prepare which suited them so well in the past.

That familiarity with the break between the Leinster final and All-Ireland semi-final was also something that Kilkenny were always extremely accustomed to. Of the 16 All-Ireland semi-finals Kilkenny won in the first 19 seasons under Cody, up until 2020, 11 were secured after at least a four-week lay-off.

In 2020, though, Kilkenny had just two weeks between the Leinster final and All-Ireland semi-final. In 2021, they had a three-week break.

Kilkenny had the best players but being able to expertly manage that extended four-week lay-off – and being able to replicate it before the final – was crucial to Kilkenny’s success under Cody.

Kilkenny mastered the art because they were so annually used to it. In Munster, no-one enjoyed that privilege because no team had been that dominant.

Limerick have reached a similar stage now to Kilkenny back then, in that they are so annually accustomed to dealing with the layoff between the Munster final and All-Ireland semi-final.

“Maybe four years ago, if you had said you’re going to get a four-week break, different scenario,” said manager John Kiely before last year’s All-Ireland semi-final against Galway.

“This time around, it was exactly what we needed after a long, tough game against Clare. We needed a little bit of time for the bodies to heal after that. It’s a different group now, an older, more mature group.

“We have a lot more experience as coaches as well so I think we have managed it really well.”

Limerick learned that lesson the hard way, especially as Munster champions. When they first went into an All-Ireland semi-final as provincial champions under Kiely, in 2019, they were beaten by Kilkenny.

“We managed four weeks last year,” said Kiely after last month’s Munster final. “We’ve done it in the past. We know our routine – it’s nailed down.”

Having one dominant team in the game also reinforces the theory of how difficult it is to win an All-Ireland through the back door, just like it was when Kilkenny were so dominant. In the first 20 seasons of Cody’s reign, only four teams won an All-Ireland through the back door, three of whom beat Kilkenny along the way.

It’s 10 years ago now two teams reached the All-Ireland final through the back door – Clare and Cork. Yet that has only happened once since – in 2019, when Tipperary and Kilkenny came through.

However, it’s 11 years since a team came through the backdoor and beat a provincial champion in the final – Kilkenny in 2012, when they turned over a Galway side which had hammered them in that year’s Leinster final.

Since the Qualifier era began in 2002, 12 Munster teams have reached an All-Ireland final through the back door. Five of those sides – Cork in 2004, Tipperary in 2010 and 2019, Clare in 2013 and Limerick in 2018 – went on to win the All-Ireland.

Prior to 2020, though, only two Munster teams – Cork in 2005 and Tipperary in 2016 – won Munster and All-Ireland titles in the same season since that Qualifier era began.

One standout team arriving on the scene again has completely altered the narrative, which has also made it harder again for teams to come through that back-door route.

Clare never recovered from that extra-time Munster final defeat last year. Lucky to get over Wexford in the All-Ireland quarter-final, Kilkenny wiped them out in the semi-final.

Clare have had to deal with an elongated injury list but they are still coming into this semi-final in far better shape than last year, especially in terms of freshness and energy levels.

It is hard to win an All-Ireland through the back door but can Clare become the sixth Munster side in seven years to reach a final through that scenic route? If they do, Clare will also take Kilkenny back into more unrecognisable territory.