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Clare's Conor Cleary. Photograph by John Kelly

Exacting revenge would be thrice as nice for Clare

There’s no doubt about who the top three hurling teams in the country are as Limerick, Clare and Kilkenny have consistently reached the All-Ireland Semi-Final stage since the most equitable means of deciding the Liam MacCarthy winners, the provincial round-robin series, returned in 2022.
There’s also no debate about which of the triumvirate is currently on top as Limerick are bidding for a historic five-in-a-row of All-Ireland that even Kilkenny themselves in their pomp couldn’t quite achieve.
And let’s be honest, while Clare supporters can legitimately put a strong case forward based on mere results against John Kiely’s side that Clare are the closest to their Shannonside neighbours, heretofore the last two All-Ireland Semi-Final showdowns between Clare and Kilkenny have told a much differing tale.
Consequently, it’s effectively a do-or-die final part of the trilogy in Croke Park this Saturday (3pm) as Clare either need to finally prove themselves on the national stage or else accept that they are third in the hurling pecking order.
Sorely second best two years ago, Clare did eventually put it up to the Cats for the majority of last year’s penultimate stage clash but it’s rather difficult to compare form heading into Saturday’s rematch.
After all, Clare have only excelled to their potential in patches of each game, worryingly switching off at key moments to allow their opponents a lifeline whereas Kilkenny cannot really admit to being pushed to their optimum at any stage.
You see, while Brian Lohan has had to field his best available side throughout their sixth championship ties to date, his managerial equivalent Derek Lyng could afford to rest and test players in what was a below-par Leinster campaign that saw them ease to a fifth provincial crown in succession.
Indeed, the Cats last defeat actually came at the hands of Clare in the National League Final as goals from Aidan McCarthy (2) and David Fitzgerald ensured a first title in eight years by 3-16 to 1-20.
Conor Cleary was the triumphant captain that day but being three months ago now, isn’t sure of what positive legacy, even psychological, that final win over Kilkenny can have on Saturday’s cut-throat championship reunion.
“It’s hard to tell really. I mean we had the league final and went almost immediately into the Munster round-robin and you could immediately feel that the pace of the hurling had gone up so while it’s almost a cliché at this stage, the fact remains that league and championship are completely different levels.
“I suppose the ground hardens even more and players and teams themselves are trying peak for championship time of year.
“So I don’t think you can read too much into the league final other than we got over the line.
I expect it to be a totally different game in Croke Park, I know they will be up a few levels and hopefully we will be as well.”
The Banner have already had to raise their bar in order to get back on track following a below-par Munster Final display, again a third consecutive encounter against the same opponents in Limerick.
Bouncing back with a commanding victory over Wexford did go a long way to lifting some of the clouds and doubts that enveloped the county in the intervening period.
“The two weeks after the Munster Final were tough in fairness, not even losing the game but the performance against Limerick was poor so we knew that we needed a response against Wexford. And thankfully we got it because we really want to expand our summer and I know we’re only at the semi-final stage now but it is hugely important to get back here.
“Being honest, there was a lot of hurt in the camp after the Munster Final and thankfully we channelled that the right way against Wexford. Now it wasn’t perfect but it was still a big step in the right direction.
“Probably our use of the ball was a lot better against Wexford than it was in the Munster Final. It wasn’t great against Limerick but with Tony [Kelly] and SODs [Shane O’Donnell] a bit deeper for the Wexford game, they’re always looking for the ball and invariably use it well when they get it so it’s just very good to have them in that middle third.”
Cleary, who despite only making his championship debut in 2016, is now the fifth most experienced player on the panel behind John Conlon, Tony Kelly, David McInerney and back-to-back All-Star O’Donnell who he feels has been playing out of his skin for the side this season.
“Shane is in unbelievable form at the moment and he’s very selfless. He doesn’t put the head down first, he’ll always try to give the ball to the player in the best position but against Wexford he did put the head down and what a goal he got so running at you like that there’s probably no more dangerous forward in the country.”
All five will be required to put in a major shift on Saturday, both in leadership and deed, as Clare haven’t won a competitive game in Croke Park since the 2013 All-Ireland Final replay.
That won’t occupy their thoughts this Saturday though as simply finally fulfilling their undoubted potential against Kilkenny in a semi-final will be the sole focus for Cleary and Co.
“Look, the last two years, we’ve gotten a lesson from them really. The first time they outplayed us for the whole game and last year they outplayed us in the second half. And no more so than the Munster Final against Limerick, we’ve looked back at last year’s game against Kilkenny just to see where we can improve.
“Even playing Kilkenny in the National League Final, they are a better team than they were last year so we also need to be better than we were last year at the minimum and more with it too if were are to get over the line.”

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