Kilkenny eyes another ambush but Clare has tools to control the chaos


All-Ireland SHC Semi-Final: Kilkenny v Clare (Today 5.30pm, Croke Park – live on RTE2)

Brian’s LIFE or Brian’s Quarrel? It will be one or the other for MM. Cody and Lohan, the chance to keep alive all Ireland’s dreams that have gone too long unfulfilled, leading Clare and Kilkenny into battle at Croke Park tonight.

When the banner was raised after All-Ireland’s final victory over Cork in 2013, it was meant to herald another glorious period in Clare’s history. Instead, there was soul-searching and a growing sense of unfulfilled destiny.

Today is only the fourth time Tony Kelly has honored Croke Park in the Senior Championship and tells a story all its own about how much they have underperformed since.

Kilkenny, under Cody, never lacked motivation, regardless of shirt body. But, having struggled to match the Noughties’ incredibly high standards in the second half of his second decade at the helm, the Cats boss – leading his county to a 21st All-Ireland semi-final – won’t rest until there’s black and amber ribbons on the Liam MacCarthy once again.

And days like this are the ones Cody enjoys the most, with the familiar threat of an ambush hanging in the air.

Limerick may be the elected champion in most people’s eyes, but it’s the swaggering banner that has lit up the summer so far, watching as the county best placed to put spokes in the wheel of dominance of its neighbours.

If they approach the level of performance achieved in the Munster final, when Limerick only escaped their clutches in extra time, Kilkenny will find Clare very difficult to live with. But it’s a huge if.

So much physical and emotional investment went into this match, and while rightly praised for their role in an unforgettable encounter, they still came out the wrong side. The record was obvious as Clare needed a searing finish to cross the line against Wexford a fortnight ago.

A potential banana peel avoided, but not without a few holes being punched in the banner’s aura.

There are many ways to view this game. Another day is one they could have lost – making previous wins over Tipp, Cork and Waterford, as well as those two powerful clashes with Limerick, redundant. But they didn’t, they dug it in the end.

Yet their vulnerability was evident, and Kilkenny can cause all sorts of trouble today unless Munster’s men manage to find their groove – after all, no one capitalizes on weakness better than Brian Cody.

He will have noted Clare’s drop in intensity since their provincial final and will also have watched with interest as Wexford rained high balls into the square, sometimes causing panic among Banner’s defence.

Lohan will know what comes from Kilkenny today, especially early on when the Cats will surely try to test Clare’s mettle under the high ball. Expect to see Walter Walsh, Eoin Cody and maybe TJ Reid hovering near Eibhear Quilligan as the Cats try to unsettle their opponents from the start. Defensive matchups will therefore be crucial as men move in and out in an attempt to confuse.

After waiting in the trenches for the past four weeks, you know they’re coming out of the traps. How Clare handles this anticipated storm will be telling, as there’s no doubt they have the tools to put Kilkenny to the sword if they can keep up.

The Cats may have kept a 17-point off-color Galway in the Leinster decider, but the banner forwards present a whole different kind of challenge. Kelly has been in flying form and it will be interesting to see if, like Wexford to good effect, Cody man-marked him.

Huw Lawlor would seem the obvious candidate but, given the Ballyea maestro’s propensity to roam, other candidates may need to be considered to avoid leaving the back line bare. Or Kilkenny could try to go zonal, as Limerick did.

This approach comes with significant risks against what is probably the best player in the country right now, while Ian Galvin, Peter Duggan, Ryan Taylor, Aaron Shanagher et al also pose a considerable threat.

For all the questions that have surrounded Clare since the Wexford game, Kilkenny didn’t exactly set the world on fire by traveling here. Beating Galway could prove a defining moment in their year, but the Tribe could hardly have been worse that day.

The Cats could push this one to death tonight, maybe even in overtime, but a superior Clare has what it takes to handle the pressure and see the work.

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