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An interesting day at Thurles where Clare and Waterford will contest this year’s NHL finale. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action from the Tipperary venue.

Clare run Kilkenny off the park

Clare were full value for their 4-22 to 2-19 victory over Kilkenny. Their win was based on superior work rate, mesmerizing pace and movement which Kilkenny found at times too hard. The warm-up session from Clare prior to throw-in was full of desire, intensity and clinical execution of skills, this trend continued from the moment that Fergal Horgan threw the ball in.

Kilkenny struggled for parity throughout the contest with TJ Reid and Richie Hogan only scoring two points from play all game. The Cats primary aerial ball winner Walter Walsh was nullified by an excellent David Fitzgerald at wing back which allowed the roving Colm Galvin to collect possession consistently around the middle of the park to hit some glorious points.

Credit where credit is due; Davy Fitzgerald and Donal Og Cusack got their game plan spot on. They resisted the temptation of pulling several forwards back defensively and instead mixed up their game plan with short passing and hitting route one delivery into John Conlon and Aaron Cunningham with purpose. The delivery was too much for Joey Holden and the Kilkenny full back line to contend with as Clare raised three green flags in the opening period; the first and third goals as a result of confusion between Murphy and Holden with Conlon causing havoc.

Kilkenny were being wholly exposed in the full back line and Cody was quick to whip off a clearly off the pace Jackie Tytell after only sixteen minutes and raises serious questions on whether the player will be feature in subsequent Kilkenny championship starting lineups. Brian Kennedy was introduced and although an improvement was also given the run around by a Clare forward line whose constant movement, immaculate first touch was creating player overlaps time and time again.

Clare’s fitness, conditioning were sublime. Paul Kinnerk’s return to the Clare setup was also all over this performance to complement the tactical game plan hatched by Fitzgerald and Cusack whose stock value continues to soar. It was a masterstroke from Clare to employ the services of a quite astute hurling man like Donal Og Cusack and it is reaping instant rewards.

The fact that Clare won this contest without Tony Kelly (sub), Conor Ryan and David McInerney (both injured) was all the more impressive. Kelly’s cameo was greeted with delirium in the Clare fans around me and when he scored off his first possession, the new Stand erupted. Kelly’s movement inside as full-forward continued to torment Kilkenny defensively even when John Conlon departed the fray.

Brian Cody and management will have precious little to be positive about after today. Their side was second best in all facets of play and with David Fitzgerald cancelling out the influence of Walter Walsh, Kilkenny struggled to win 50/50 ball. The team continued until the end and their score haul was admirable considering the situation that they were faced with. Big questions on the full-back line surfaced today. Three of the goals were caused by the full-back line unable to deal with route one ball forcing Eoin Murphy to launch himself at the ball which broke to Clare’s players to score easy goals.

Clare has massive performances throughout the side. Cian Dillon at full-back was prominent in clearing endless ball and launching several lung bursting runs to launch attacks. Conor Cleary, Colm Galvin, Aaron Cunningham also stood out but John Conlon and Darach Honan for me set the tone for the team with their work rate and threat throughout.

Conlon is having a stellar season at full-forward and he gave Holden the run around at times; his explosive pace with ball in hand was quite something. Honan’s work rate has being criticized in the past but not today as the Clonlara clubman rolled up his sleeves and won dirt ball for his side. His height also allowed Clare to win easy ball from their puckouts; Kelly’s distribution was on point throughout. A satisfying display from Clare who issued a serious statement of their aspirations this season.

Kilkenny receive their reality check and it will be interesting to see how Cody reacts to this reversal. The new players failed to impress today as Clare snuffed out each threat one by one. Eoin Larkin will be back in the panel in due course. Kilkenny will not panic but they need to address vulernabilities which surfaced during the game. Fitness will improve but the full back line exposures today will be a considerable worry. Fantastic game.

Waterford in cruise control

The curtain raiser in Thurles was a dour affair. Limerick never threatened the win here as their persistence to deploy a defensive short passing game back fired incredibly in the second half with numerous scores (1-6) conceded due to misplaced passes. The Shannonsiders were bereft of any ideas on how to breakdown the defensive Waterford structures (two men sweeping behind the half-back line).

Limerick may have led 0-13 to 0-11 at the interval but Waterford had shown on several occasions the ability to open gaps in the Limerick defensive rearguard. Gavin O’Mahoney was a busy man trying to contain with two against one scenarios at various stages even though Ronan Lynch was sweeping behind the Kilmallock clubman.

The first half was a very cagey affair; both sides played a short passing game to offset the number of players in defensive positions. The ploy was causing more harm than good for both sides during the opening period as several misplaced passes allowed their opponent to score either from play or from frees.

Limerick fans around me were very unhappy with the tactical game plan on display but it was potentially answered in the second half as the Limerick back line decided to haul long ball into their forward line who were flat out second best in the aerial battle. Gleeson, De Burca and Connors dominating at will. The forward line were incapable of winning their own ball and this lies the problem for Limerick as their forward line were closed out of the contest; the work rate without the ball at times was second best.

Limerick management also need to be called to account for several baffling decisions. Gearoid Hegarty endured a torrid afternoon; deployed at wing forward, the St.Patrick’s club man never got into the game and was reduced to chasing shadows for long periods. Hegarty is a wing back or midfield option. The forward line experiment failed. Declan Hannan personally was not match fit; struggled to get to the tempo of the game upon his introduction for Kevin Downes who was workmanlike and busy throughout.

Waterford will be reasonably pleased with this outing. All units played well and their dominance of Limerick in the first ten minutes of the second half won the contest. The back line were in complete control throughout; Coughlan and Gleeson were the defensively resolute in the central positions. De Burca was immaculate; his game reading and game time decision making were a joy to watch.

Jamie Barron in midfield was typically abrasive and got in massive work-rate throughout. The forward line was very prominent in the second half with several scores coming from poor Limerick defensive short pass mistakes. Patrick Curran, Shane Bennett to the fore with a total tally of 2-13. All replacements made an impact; a good day for Derek McGrath and management who had the luxury of leaving Maurice Shanahan on the bench throughout.

Limerick are a true enigma; their win against Dublin is undermined by this performance. Maybe TJ Ryan should have kept his thoughts to himself when launching choice words at some local Limerick scribes post-game in Parnell Park? Limerick have massive work to do to compete in this championship and their conditioning was second best today. Ronan Lynch in the sweeper role was good but the system broke down in the last quarter with two very soft goals conceded. Apart from Barry Nash, no genuine quality inside forward to win their own ball despite Morrissey’s three point haul in the first half.

An interesting NHL final beckons with Clare and Waterford due to clash in Thurles for a Munster SHC fixture on June 5th. Will both teams play in cagey? Will both teams play their cards close to their chest with a championship meeting only five weeks away after the final? Will both just go all out to win a national crown? Hoping for the latter but it could be a defensive orientated finale.