WATERFORD............ 2-17 CLARE..........1-18
By Michael O Connor.
Paradise lost, in two words could best describe the opportunity spurned by Clare in this hard fought semi final in Thurles. Waterford, with much prematch knowledge available to them put it to optimum use to eke out a win that perhaps was tinged with a slice of good fortune when a crucial first half decision granted them a penalty. This win qualifies Waterford for their fifth Munster final in a row as now it lies at 3-3 in the clashes between the two counties since 1998. Pictorial evidence post game would suggest that Waterford had strong claims for a penalty but on the other side a foul had been committed on the Clare full back as well.
Waterford manager Michael Ryan issued four new caps for this eagerly awaited semi final tie. Ballygunner goalkeeper Stephen O'Keeffe, defenders Stephen Daniels and Philip Mahony and corner forward Gavin O'Brien from Roanmore all made their first starts at this level. The Déise's defence is missing veteran wing back Tony Browne, who is benched just a few weeks short of his 39th birthday, and Noel Connors has not recovered in time from a back injury. But in-form attacker Eoin Kelly is fit to start at wing forward, with O'Brien's consistent displays during the league earning him a shot at top of the left. Kelly and his colleagues were hoping to silence their former manager Davy Fitzgerald who was taking charge of Clare for the first time on the Championship stage. Under Fitzgerald's time in charge of the Southern side, Waterford reached three successive Munster finals and lifted the trophy in 2010 thanks to a memorable replay win over Cork.
The physical development of the Clare squad had been lauded but that was tested only in Division 2 hurling and for the opening twenty minutes of this tie they were pushed hard by Waterford expending a lot of energy and were very fortunate to be only two points in arrears when James Owens called for the half time break. The suggestions that not all was right in Waterford leading to selectors making way cloaked the fact that Michael Ryan's side are battle hardened warriors who always give their all during the summer.
Conor McGrath commenced Clare's scoring in this year's championship after a Colin Ryan pass in the 1st minute. Nicky O Connell added to this as the optimism behind this team appeared justified with a well taken free to send Clare two clear. Richie Foley opened the Decies account as the Clare half back line and even midfield sector were labouring. The argument that Clare are a young side is a little false in that Waterford had 4 debutants and Clare had two in Patrick Kelly and Padraig Collins. Even as early as the end of the first quarter Stephen Molumphy and Philip Mahony were gaining the advantage at midfield with Molumphy winning man of the match plaudits. Jonathan Clancy, Nicky O Connell, John Mullane, Shane Walsh added minors by the 13th minute as Clare led (0-4) to (0-3) before the controversial penalty by blasted to the Clare net by Eoin Kelly. Waterford pressed home the advantage with a brace of scores from Maurice Shanahan. Shane Walsh pounced on indecision to flick the ball to the Clare net for the games second goal to leave Waterford (2-5) to (0-5) clear. Clare needed leadership and more importantly a rally of scores to get confidence and a foothold in the game that was quickly slipping from their grasp.
The lifeline came from a well taken John Conlon goal as Padraig Collins set up the Clonlara man. Conor McGrath pointed seconds beforehand. Hard hurling was evident for the remaining ten minutes of the first half with the sides sharing half a dozen scores with Seamus Prendergast, Maurice Shanahan and Gavin O Brien on target for the decies as Nicky O Connell and Conlon (2) kept Clare (2-8) to (1-9) in contact with the leaders at the interval.
Clare supporters were expecting changes for the second half and whilst they came further damage was inflicted on the Clare psyche. Waterford hit Clare hard on the scoreboard early with scores from Mullane and Shanahan before Jonatha Clancy, Nicky O Connell and Conor McGrath with a great effort left the minimum between the side after 43 minutes.
The first substitution of the day for Clare resulted in Liam Markham on at midfield with Nicky O Connell reverting to centre back as James Mcinerney made way. Indeed the stalwart who had been injured for a lot of the last two months was far from his best in this game. Colin Ryan sent over a free in the 46th minute three minutes before Clare goalpeeper Patrick Kelly pointed a gigantic long range free as Clare went ahead for the first time since the 13th minute. This lead was short lived as Maurice Shanahan sent over the equaliser. Some factor died in the Clare fightback at this stage as their efforts only got them past halfway as Shanahan, Molumphy, Mullane and Foley were all on target between the 52nd and 57th minute to restore a four point Decies lead. Nicky O Connell responded for Clare as the Clare forward division was allowed the presence of Darach Honan with Paudge Collins making way with Seadna Morey on for Patrick O Connor who had a difficult afternoon at number 7.
Conlon and Shanahan who was very confident from frees swopped scores before Conor McGrath and Ryan (free) left Waterford (2-16) to (1-18) leaders entering the last five minutes. It would be remiss not to mention that Clare had three goal chances in the remaining minutes. Firstly, Conor McGraths hard worked effort that came off goalie Stephen O Keeffe with O Connell sending the 65 wide. The second was a breaking ball that hopped out of Darach Honan's hand when a goal shot looked on and finally when a last minute free was hit by Patrick Kelly only to be saved. In between all this action in front of the Decies goal the winners got one last chance in front of the Clare goal and sub Martin O Neill was calmness personified as he sent Waterford two clear and into the munster final.
Best for Waterford who will improve from this game but may struggle in the decider include Maurice Shanahan, Stephen O Keeffe, Liam Lawlor, Michael Walsh, Stephen Molumphy, Stephen Daniels, Philip Mahony, John Mullane, Shane Walsh in patches, Seamus Prendergast, Kevin Moran and Noel Connors.
Clare will have sleepless nights over this defeat as Brendan Bugler, Domhnall O Donovan, Jonathan Clancy Cian Dillon, John Conlon and Conor McGrath had their moments,
WATERFORD: Stephen O'Keeffe, Aidan Kearney, Liam Lawlor, Stephen Daniels, Richie Foley (0-2), Michael Walsh (capt), Philip Mahony, Kevin Moran, Stephen Molumphy (0-1), Maurice Shanahan (0-7), Seamus Prendergast (0-1), Eoin Kelly (1-0), John Mullane (0-3), Shane Walsh (1-1), Gavin O'Brien (0-1). Subs: Noel Connors for Kearney, Gavin O Brien for Paul O Brien, Thomas Ryan for Walsh, Dean Twomey for Foley, Martin O Neill (0-1) for Kelly,
CLARE: Patrick Kelly (0-1), Domhnall O'Donovan, Cian Dillon, Conor Cooney, Brendan Bugler, James McInerney, Patrick O'Connor, Nicky O'Connell (0-5), Patrick Donnellan, Jonathan Clancy (0-3), John Conlon (1-2), Enda Barrett, Paudge Collins, Colin Ryan (0-3), Conor McGrath (0-4). Subs: Liam Markham for McInerney, Fergal Lynch for Barrett, Darach Honan for Collins, Seadna Morey for O Connor, Aaron Cunningham for Ryan,
Referee: James Owens (Westmeath).