BY NIALL SHERRY
PHOTOS BY INPHO
Final berth up for grabs in Croker clash
GAA All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship Semi-Final
Kilkenny vs Clare
Croke Park, July 2nd
A place in the 2022 All-Ireland senior hurling final is the prize on offer when Kilkenny face-off against Clare tomorrow evening (throw-in 5:30pm) in the Capital.
The travelling faithful from both counties’ will be Dublin-bound on Saturday, as they hope to cheer their team onto a Liam McCarthy decider against the winners of Sunday’s clash between Limerick and Henry Shefflin’s Galway.
Before the Cats and Banner start dreaming of the decider, they will lock horns at headquarters in what many have cited as a clash too close to call. The bookies have Clare as marginal favourites, and that will suit Brian Cody and his charges.
Kilkenny have taken the shortest, most direct route to the last four, whereas the Banner negotiated a tricky quarter-final clash with Wexford which saw them prevail by 4 points, having overturned a 6-point deficit with around 10 minutes left on the clock.
Brian Lohan will know that his side cannot afford to let the cats build up a 6-point lead in similar fashion, as Cody’s men are unlikely to surrender such an advantage coming down the home straight.
Meetings between these two sides in the championship are not plentiful, we are still in single figures. The most recent meeting came at the same stage of the competition, back in August 2006, when the Cats prevailed by 8 points, thanks to a massive 1-13 haul from, yes, you guessed it, one Henry Shefflin.
The Banner’s only championship win over the Noresiders came in 1997, when Ger Loughnane’s outfit had a 4-point semi-final win over the men in stripes.
Leinster Champions Kilkenny will look to continue their decent record over Clare tomorrow, and showcase their provincial status to good effect. Munster sides appear to have dominated the All-Ireland series for the last few years with one of ‘their lot’ winning Liam in each of the last four years. In 2017, 2018 and 2021, three of the last four standing were Munster teams. Same story in the National League.
Up until Clare turned the tide against Darragh Eagan’s Wexford a fortnight ago, it looked like Leinster would provide 3 out of 4 of this year’s semi-finalists. Lohan’s charges had different ideas.
Had you have told me that the Model County would hold the mighty Tony Kelly to just 0-4, I would probably have picked the Yellowbellies to edge the result, but the Banner outscored Wexford by 1-9 to 0-2 in the final 10 minutes at Semple Stadium to earn a semi-final berth.
So, let’s look at the opposition. Clare have been a breath of fresh air in this seasons hurling championship. The Banner had the audacity to take the seemingly unbeatable Limerick to extra time in the Munster decider, and lost out narrowly by a goal. Their ‘main man’ Tony Kelly hit something like 0-13, including a sublime sideline cut to force extra-time.
The accuracy from the placed ball will once again be crucial. We have TJ (and Alan Murphy), they have Tony (and Peter Duggan). As I mentioned earlier, Wexford kept Tony Kelly relatively quiet. Lohan sprung both Aron Shanagher (1-2) and Shane Meehan (0-2) from the bench, and their impact as telling. In Shane O’Donnell, they have an experienced leader on the ‘40, and his battle with possibly Richie Reid could be key.
In defence Lohan will look to Conor Cleary to keep things tight. Cleary is a sticky, tight man-marker – it will be interesting to see who his boss had earmarked him for tomorrow. Could it be TJ? Clonlara’s John Conlon will marshal his defence from No.6 and will hopefully be in for a busy evening at the Jones’s Road venue.
If it’s Fitgerald and Reidy in the engine room, Brian Cody will be hoping to least break even here. Adrian Mullen has been mightily impressive around the middle third in recent games and his Clare counterparts will have been briefed on the Ballyhale man’s long-range shooting ability.
Cats boss Cody will no doubt have taken note while on spectating duty in Thurles, of the joy Wexford had when they pumped the ball into Conor McDonald and Lee Chin. The quick direct ball into the Clare full-back line caused a certain amount of discomfort for the Banner defence. Surely Walter Walsh will be licking his lips at the prospect of this. I know I would fancy TJ plucking a couple of those balls out of the air if he’s left inside from time-to-time.
The continued good form of the 2 Mikey’s, Bolger and Carey will be vital to the Kilkenny cause tomorrow. There have been some pundits that have called for Huw Lawlor to be moved to ‘6’ in order to prevent the opening up on the Cats defence down the middle. I expect Brian Cody to have a plan for all eventualities. His bench may hold a few aces as well. Alan Murphy, Blanchfield, Leahy, Buckley, Browne etc.
Eoin Cody can obviously play a starring role at headquarters tomorrow. The talented Shamrocks attacker has been a little quieter this season than probably even he himself would have expected. I’d like Eoin to embrace Croker and revel it its wide-open spaces. If he’s on form and gets a couple of early scores, the worlds his oyster.
Getting back to the battle of the provinces, its striking and stark that Kilkenny have only won three of their last nine championship matches against sides from Munster. What Limerick recently; and the likes of Waterford and Cork have done is translate U21 and U20 silverware into senior success. Before this season, the last 10 winning teams in these age groups have come from Munster. That is no coincidence.
Don’t forget that the cats were the last side to defeat the Treaty County in championship hurling, in 2019. Since we last had Liam on Noreside, our boys have succumbed to Munster opposition every year. Tipperary and Waterford twice apiece, Limerick and last year, the Rebels of Cork.
Tomorrow is a chance to lay these ghosts to rest.
>> SHERRY SAYS…..
2015 is a lifetime ago. We have been through (hopefully) a global pandemic, Brexit, (don’t start me on that), Donald Trump, numerous Eurovision failures, 100 soccer matches with Georgia and a lot of Limerick winning hurling matches.
In order to prevent Clare from joining the ‘Munster bunch’ in ending our quest for Liam, Brian Cody will have been working tirelessly on a plan to combat Brian Lohan’s men. I’m sure Brian Cody has gone into every championship match since beating Galway in the 2015 decider, thinking that the knives are getting a little sharper as each season passes.
Tomorrow’s squad contains a few men from our last lifting of Liam. Eoin Murphy, TJ & Richie Reid, The Walsh’s, Padraig and Walter and Cillian Buckley.
Tony Kelly is one of those hurlers that you would want in your team, he certainly has that star quality that’s normally with the admission fee alone. We’ll have to nullify the Ballyea man’s threat. Don’t be fooled into thinking that the Banner are a 1-man team. They’re most definitely not. Shane O’Donnell, Conor Cleary and David Reidy are all a bit handy.
Are you better to take the direct route to the semi-finals? Or are you better having the extra game to keep you moving and possibly prevent a little rustiness creeping in? I’m sure Mr. B Cody will have left no stone unturned in his team’s preparation for tomorrow.
The referee will have a big part to play in Saturday’s encounter.
I’d love this to be a free-flowing tough, physical battle, no quarter given by either side, a game that Gaels will talk about for years, but semi-finals are for winning and to be honest, I don’t really care how Kilkenny get over the line – just as long as they do.