Hurling and camogie

Cats leave Clare in their wake to seal All-Ireland final showdown with Limerick

Kilkenny's Martin Keoghan wheels away in celebration after bagging the Cats' first goal in Saturday's All-Ireland SHC semi-final victory over Clare. Picture by Philip Walsh
Neil Loughran at Croke Park

All-Ireland SHC semi-final: Clare 0-20 Kilkenny 2-26

NEVER mind an ambush, what took place at Croke Park on Saturday night was an annihilation - a beat down largely of Clare’s own making, but owing so much to a Kilkenny performance for the ages as the Cats swept into a first All-Ireland final since 2019.

Yet while a Kilkenny victory wasn’t exactly unforeseen, Clare’s shaky showing against Wexford two weeks earlier exposing enough flaws to cast serious doubt on All-Ireland aspirations, the manner of it most certainly was.

After all, this dashing Banner outfit had illuminated so much of the summer, not least in the thrilling Munster final clash with noisy neighbours Limerick. Many expected a third instalment of that rivalry to be played out on July 17.

It was hard to believe you were watching the same side as Clare were brushed aside in comprehensive fashion, Saturday’s semi-final all but wrapped up by the time the teams ran in for half-time.

When it comes to Brian Cody’s Cats, though, nothing should ever come as a surprise.

With little evidence of the swashbuckling style that has been their hallmark thus far, Clare lacked any kind of leadership or cohesion, and looked devoid of ideas as time and again the sliothar was tossed in the direction of forwards who were getting absolutely no change out of a resolute Kilkenny defence.

Punishment for their profligacy before the posts - Clare racked up 10 wides in the first half and finished up with 24- and in front of goal was dealt out with ruthless efficiency at the other end, each turnover like a dagger to the heart as the Cats put their boot on Clare throats.

When Martin Keoghan tapped into an empty net in added time at the end of the first half, Kilkenny led 1-17 to 0-6. Even in his wildest dreams, Cody could never have expected such one-way traffic, rendering the second half little more than a formality.

Clare counterpart Brian Lohan opted not to face the television cameras or the written press afterwards - perhaps attempting to comprehend his side’s implosion was too tall an order at that time.

Cody wasn’t about to be drawn into any kind of conversation about whether or not Clare’s tactics had played into Kilkenny’s hands, preferring instead to savour clearing the semi-final hurdle after the disappointment of the past two years.

“Ah look, I wouldn't comment at all on what Clare were doing,” he said.

“I just have absolute respect for Clare, what they've done this year and they'll be disappointed obviously with today but they're a wonderful team and they applied themselves magnificently as well, they didn't stop fighting until the last second of the game, which again is credit to the spirit that they have.

“To be in the position we were in at half-time took a huge effort - honesty, skill, application, and everything else. In the second half the performance dipped a bit, understandably, because when you’re that far ahead you’re watching for the final whistle, but we tacked on some great scores.

“I have absolute admiration for the way the players performed.”

There is little doubt the Banner’s ambitions were severely hampered by the loss of converted centre-back John Conlon to a back injury before throw-in, with replacement Páidí Fitzpatrick – who hadn’t played a single minute of Clare’s five previous games in this Championship – overrun before being withdrawn at the break.

Yet it just didn’t happen for them anywhere. Led by the majestic TJ Reid, Kilkenny stopped Clare settling into the game, the 34-year-old dominating the skies and twice pick-pocketing the dawdling Conor Cleary as the Cats turned up the heat early on, with Adrian Mullen battling for every scrap available and showing his class before the posts.

It was in defence, though, that the foundation stones of this Saturday night success were laid. After giving up just 17 points to Galway in the Leinster final, perhaps more emphasis was put upon a faltering Tribe performance than the pressure that forced them to be so flat.

If it was hard to truly gauge where Kilkenny stood coming out of Leinster, well, now we know – and the latest evidence suggests Limerick are in for a dog of a day in a fortnight’s time.

Eoin Murphy produced two good stops when called upon, while Huw Lawlor, Tommy Walsh, Mikey Carey and Paddy Deegan were rock solid, working in perfect harmony throughout.

And in Mikey Butler the Cats have unearthed another gem - Cody once more demonstrating the faith he has in the 22-year-old by handing him the task of curtailing Tony Kelly. The Ballyea maestro didn’t manage a point from play and was always operating on the fringes.

If Keoghan’s goal before half-time, which came after Clare had spurned two decent goal opportunities of their own, sucked the life from the Banner challenge, Cian Kenny’s major eight minutes into the second half made it mission impossible.

Typically, despite the relative comfort with which Galway had been dismissed the last day, Cody shuffled the Cats pack by bringing in Padraig Walsh and Conor Browne for this one. As he looks ahead to a 17th All-Ireland final, Cody’s eagle eye will be watching every second of every session over the next few weeks.

Saturday is already forgotten, a new day ready to dawn. There will be no resting easy as this side’s date with destiny loom.

“I know everyone wants to talk about a settled team, but I make clear that I’m only interested in a settled panel, everyone fighting for their place and knowing if we put them on - who knows what team we’ll pick for the next day, but it’s whatever team we pick is the right team to pick.

“It’s about having that absolute spirit in the whole panel, where everybody respects everybody else’s opportunity… that if they earn the right to play they should play.

“You remember like we were here last year we didn't win it, we were here the year before. Everybody wants to get to the All-Ireland final and of course I would say in everybody's mind and everybody's heart, they would be saying, 'look lads, we can't afford this to happen again'.

“Because it's a tough feeling when you do lose it.”

Clare: E Quilligan; R Hayes (0-1), C Cleary, P Flanagan; D Ryan (0-3), P Fitzpatrick, D McInerney (0-1); D Fitzgerald (0-3), D Reidy; C Malone, T Kelly (0-4, 0-3 frees, 0-1 65), S O'Donnell (0-4); I Galvin, P Duggan (0-1, free), R Taylor (0-1). Subs: A Shanagher for Galvin (26), M Rodgers (0-2) for Reidy, A Fitzgerald for Fitzpatrick (HT), S Meehan for Duggan (49), S Golden for Taylor (65).

Yellow card: R Taylor (38)

Kilkenny: E Murphy; M Butler, H Lawlor, T Walsh; M Carey, R Reid, P Deegan; A Mullen (0-5), C Browne (0-1); Eoin Cody (0-3), Padraig Walsh (0-2), TJ Reid (0-10, 0-7 frees); B Ryan (0-2), M Keoghan (1-0), C Kenny (1-2). Subs: W Walsh (0-1) for Keoghan (HT), J Donnelly for P Walsh (49), R Leahy for Browne (61), A Murphy for Ryan (65), C Delaney for Carey (70+2).

Yellow card: TJ Reid (40)

Referee: F Horgan (Tipperary)

Att: 39,626

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Hurling and camogie