Kilkenny eye another ambush but Clare have tools to control chaos
All-Ireland SHC semi-final: Kilkenny v Clare (today, 5.30pm, Croke Park – live on RTE2)
LIFE of Brian, or strife of Brian? It will be one or other for Messrs Cody and Lohan, the opportunity to keep alive All-Ireland dreams that have gone unrealised for too long driving Clare and Kilkenny into battle at Croke Park this evening.
When the Banner was raised after All-Ireland final replay victory over Cork in 2013, it was supposed to herald another glorious period in Clare’s history. Instead, there has been introspection and a growing sense of destiny unfulfilled.
That today will be only the fourth time Tony Kelly has graced Croke Park in senior Championship tells a tale all of its own about the scale of their underachievement since.
Kilkenny, under Cody, have never lacked for motivation, no matter what body was in the jersey. But, having struggled to match the impossibly high standards of the Noughties in the second half of his second decade at the helm, the Cats boss - leading his county into a 21st All-Ireland semi-final - won’t rest until there are black and amber ribbons on the Liam MacCarthy once more.
And days like this are the ones Cody relishes most of all, with the familiar threat of ambush hanging in the air.
Limerick may be champions-elect in most peoples’ eyes, but it is the swashbuckling Banner who have lit up the summer so far, looking the county best placed to put a spoke in the wheel of their neighbours’ domination.
If they get anywhere near the performance level reached in the Munster final, when Limerick only escaped their clutches in extra-time, Kilkenny will find Clare seriously hard to live with. But that’s a huge if.
So much physical and emotional investment went into that game and, while rightly lauded for their part in an unforgettable encounter, they still came out the wrong side. The toll taken was evident as Clare required a storming finish to squeeze across the line against Wexford a fortnight ago.
A potential banana skin averted, but not without a few holes being punched in the Banner aura.
There are a couple of ways of looking at that game. On another day, it’s one they could have lost – rendering earlier victories over Tipp, Cork and Waterford, as well as those two mighty clashes with Limerick, redundant. But they didn’t, they dug it out in the end.
Yet their vulnerability was clear see, and Kilkenny can cause all kinds of bother today unless the Munster men manage to find their flow once more – after all, nobody capitalises on weakness better than Brian Cody.
He will have noted Clare’s drop in intensity from their provincial final, and will have also have watched with interest as Wexford rained high balls into the square, occasionally spreading panic among the Banner defence.
Lohan will know what is coming from Kilkenny today, particularly early on, when the Cats will surely try and test Clare’s mettle under the high ball. Expect to see Walter Walsh, Eoin Cody and possibly TJ Reid hovering near Eibhear Quilligan as the Cats attempt to unsettle their opponents from the off. Defensive match-ups, therefore, will be crucial as men drift in and out in an attempt to discombobulate.
Having waited in the trenches for the past four weeks, you just know they are going to come flying out of the traps. How Clare handle that anticipated storm will be telling, because there is no doubt they have the tools to put Kilkenny to the sword if they can stick the pace.
The Cats may have kept an off-colour Galway to 17 points in the Leinster decider, but the Banner forwards represent an entirely different kind of challenge. Kelly has been in flying form and it will be interesting to see if, like Wexford to good effect, Cody has him man-marked.
Huw Lawlor would seem the obvious candidate but, given the Ballyea maestro’s propensity to roam, other candidates may have to be considered to avoid leaving the last line bare. Or Kilkenny could attempt to go zonal, as Limerick did.
That approach carries significant risk when up against probably the best player in the country at present, while Ian Galvin, Peter Duggan, Ryan Taylor, Aaron Shanagher et al present considerable threat too.
For all the questions that have surrounded Clare since the Wexford game, Kilkenny haven’t exactly set the world alight on the way here. Beating Galway might prove a seminal moment in their year, but the Tribe could hardly have been any worse on the day.
The Cats might push this one right to the death tonight, possibly even into extra-time, but a superior Clare have what it takes to handle the pressure and see out the job.