Clare relegated after losing epic clash against the Cats

SportBy Sean McGoldrick
Kilkenny's Cillian Buckley celebrates at the final whistle
Kilkenny's Cillian Buckley celebrates at the final whistle

All-Ireland Champions Kilkenny secured their place in the top flight of the Allianz Hurling League after edging out Clare by a single point at Nowlan Park.

A late point from wing back Cillian Buckley following a mistake by the Clare goalkeeper Patrick Kelly proved the decisive score as the All-Ireland title holders preserved their Division 1A status.

It was a cruel outcome for the visitors who had contributed enormously to an enthralling encounter in which the sides were level on ten occasions and neither side were ever more than three points ahead.

An injury hit Clare side deserved to take the game into extra time. Instead they face the prospect of Division 1B hurling next season.

Davy Fitzgerald won't need reminding that had his team reached the same level of performance in previous rounds they wouldn't been in a relegation final in the first place.

Clare though will take much encouragement from this performance; they have eight weeks to prepare for their Munster quarter final clash against Limerick.

Ultimately the result of this contest will define their season and despite only winning one competitive match - against Dublin - since last spring - they are in infinitely better shape than TJ Ryan's Limerick side.

Brian Cody has an unusual dilemma. Due to the side's failure to reach the knock out stages of the League his spring their next competitive game - the Leinster semi-final is not until the longest day of the year - June 21!

The absolute absurdity of the GAA calendar is illustrated by this gap in the fixtures, together with the fact that this was Kilkenny's LAST home game in 2015 (they only had three) and this was only the third competitive clash in the last two seasons between the 2013 and 2014 All-Ireland title holders!

For the moment, however, Cody will be content that his side has preserved their place in the top flight after a difficult spring.

Officially this was their first match in the post-Henry Shefflin era - but it was the return of Shefflin's Ballyhale colleagues that made all the difference. TJ Reid was nominated as the TG Man of the Match - he scored a crucial first half goal for the home side and chipped in with three points.

But it was his work rate, tackling and blocking was set him apart. Ballyhale's Colin Fennelly hit three points while his brother Michael scored 0-1 and put in an excellent shift at midfield.

Overall the work rate of both teams was incredible given that essentially the season is in its infancy; such was the pressure exerted on players in possession that the sliotar was spilled or blocked on countless occasions resulting not just in turn overs but in crucial scores for the opposition.

Cork's Cathal McAllister refereed the game as if the new advantage rule was already in use; it doesn't come into force until next month.

It was incredibly difficult to win a free as evident by the fact that just three of the 37 scores came from frees.

Neither side complained, however, and despite what was at stake there was scarcely a single foul stroke in a memorable showdown.

Crucially seven different Kilkenny players got on the scoresheet whereas only five Clare players scored.

Even though he blazed 26th minute penalty wide Tony Kelly tormented Kilkenny and together with full forward Shane O'Donnell looked like the double act that would keep Clare in the top flight for much of the second half.

Kelly was the game's top scorer with an 0-9 contribution - seven of his scores came from play - but even he was surpassed by O'Donnell who arguably had his best game for Clare since he scored his famous hat trick of goals in the 2013 All-Ireland final replay against Cork.

Left isolated up front he tormented Paul Murphy; he scored Clare's goal after four minutes and chipped in with another three points.

Having played with the strong breeze Clare were just a point ahead at the break (1-8;1-7) but such was the influence of the Kelly-O'Donnell axis that the visitors looked capable of sending the Cats into Division 1B for much of the third quarter.

As is their wont Kilkenny hung in; twice Clare led by two points but Kilkenny reeled them in and when Kelly was forced to hobble off with what appeared an ankle ligament injury in the 68th minute swung the pendulum in the home side's favour.

By then they had already regrouped having played second fiddle for much of the half.

They had hit 12 wides compared to six for Clare but the visitors squandered two chances of retaking the lead at the business end of the contest and the increasingly influential Cillian Buckley make them pay when he slotted over the winning point in the 70th minute.

Kilkenny: E Murphy; S Prendergast, P Murphy, J Holden; L Ryan, K Joyce (0-1), C Buckley (0-2); J Lyng, M Fennelly (0-1), W Walsh (0-3), M Ruth, TJ Reid (1-3), J Farrell, C Fennelly (0-3), R Hogan (0-5, 0-2f). Subs: M Kelly for Ryan (55),

Clare: P Kelly; D O’Donovan, D McInerney, J Browne; C Dillon, Conor Ryan, P Donnellan; P O’Connor, C Galvin; J Conlon (0-1), T Kelly (0-9, 0-1f, 0-1 ‘65’), Colin Ryan; C McGrath, S O’Donnell (1-3), D Reidy (0-3).

Subs: C O’Connell for McGrath (21), S Golden for Colin Ryan (54), A Cunningham for C O’Connell (63), S Morey (0-1) for Galvin (63), B Duggan for Kelly (67).