Davy driving Clare close to perfection

Clare 1-22 Limerick 0-18
Perfection in team sport is well-nigh impossible to attain; with this display in Croke Park yesterday in the second All-Ireland senior hurling championship semi-final, Clare came as close as any team has so far this year.

On the field and off every battle was won and it started before a ball was hit.

Tactically it was well flagged that Clare would again play the sweeper system they’ve been working with all year and the word coming out of Limerick was that they were all set to neutralise that plan — they weren’t.

Patrick Donnellan is the Clare captain and regular centre-back; yesterday his position in the half-back line was taken by Conor Ryan and Patrick dropped back into the ‘hole’ between the two defensive lines. What did Limerick do to counteract that? Nothing that anyone in the 62,962 attendance could see; instead they played right into Clare’s hands, into Donnellan’s hands more specifically — he had a field day.

Not that anyone in a dominant Clare defence looked as though they needed assistance anyway. Not a single Limerick forward won his individual battle, speedy corner-forward Graeme Mulcahy looking the most threatening, but even he was well marked by the increasingly impressive youngster, David McInerney.

Mulcahy did have one run on goal, brought a good save from Patrick Kelly, but even then he was put under pressure by the fast-closing Donnellan.

Midfield was also an area won by Clare, despite the best efforts of Paul Browne, one of Limerick’s best on the day. Here Tony Kelly was especially impressive, finished with four points from play, but Colm Galvin also contributed a beauty.

One had to feel sorry for an overworked Limerick defence and Stephen Walsh, Richie McCarthy and Tom Condon in the full-back line lost any caste, nor did Paudie O’Brien nor Gavin O’Mahony on the flanks. They too had an extra man and Tom Condon cleaned up a lot of ball, but the five Clare forwards played like men possessed, relentless pressure put on every Limerick defender as they attempted to work the ball clear.

It all added up to a superb team performance by Clare, 23 scores (1-22) from just 28 shots, a mere three points conceded to the starting forwards at the other, three more to the subs who came in.

Does this mean Clare have hit their pinnacle, have hit the pinnacle of team play in hurling? Not a bit of it, not even close. With an average age of 23 this is a Clare side on a learning curve; in every championship game so far this year they’ve improved, they’ll surely improve again for the All-Ireland final. But it was impressive, very impressive.

From the start Limerick were in trouble, looking nervy and out of sorts after the five-week break from the Munster final. It began with a missed free by the normally deadly Declan Hannon, continued in those opening 15 minutes as Clare raced into a 1-4 to 0-1 lead, full-forward Darach Honan using his long leg to boot home a scrappy but ultimately golden goal in the 12th minute. In that period Limerick shot five wides and would shoot five more before the break, the unfortunate Hannon with four of those.

Should Limerick have made a change of free-taker? In hindsight, definitely, especially given sub Shane Dowling’s eventual return of six from six.

Even with all those wides Limerick trailed by just seven points at the break, 1-10 to 0-6.

Limerick needed a good start to the second half ! and they duly delivered, Dowling with three points from frees (one inside his own half) to bring the deficit back to four. That’s as close as it would get, however.

As they had done in both their games in Munster, Limerick brought in the 7th Cavalry; Niall Moran, Kevin Downes and Thomas Ryan all joining Dowling on the field, the latter two getting on the scoresheet. Made no difference.

This was Clare’s day, their near-perfect day.

With Kelly and Galvin shredding Limerick in midfield, Colin Ryan continuing to punish defensive infractions, Clare finished with aplomb.

A September date now with Cork, their conquerors in Munster, it’s going to be one hell of an All-Ireland final!

Scorers for Clare: Colin Ryan 0-11 (9f); T Kelly 0-4; P Collins 0-3; D Honan 1-0; P Donnellan, P O’Connor, C Galvin, C McInerney 0-1 each.

Scorers for Limerick: S Dowling 0-6 (5f, 1 65); P Browne 0-2; G O’Mahony 0-2, (1 s/l); D Hannon 0-2 (2f); D Breen, J Ryan, G Mulcahy, C Allis, K Downes, T Ryan 0-1 each.

Clare: P Kelly; D O’Donovan, C Dillon, D McInerney; P O’Connor, Conor Ryan, B Bugler; T Kelly, C Galvin; J Conlon, P Collins, Colin Ryan; C McGrath, D Honan, P Donnellan (c).

Subs for Clare: F Lynch for Conlon (44); C McInerney for Honan (64); N O’Connell for Galvin (67); S O’Donnell for McGrath (70+1).

Limerick: N Quaid; S Walsh, R McCarthy, T Condon; P O’Brien, W McNamara, G O’Mahony; P Browne, D O’Grady (c); D Breen, J Ryan, S Hickey; G Mulcahy, D Hannon, S Tobin.

Subs for Limerick: C Allis for Hickey (inj. 15); S Dowling for Tobin (32); N Moran for Hannon (50); T Ryan for Allis (56); K Downes for Breen (63).

Referee: J Ryan (Tipperary).

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