I got a text from a good buddy before yesterday’s game in Ennis which neatly set the scene for what followed. My mate was walking in to the ground when he passed a couple of disgruntled Limerick supporters, frustrated about the crowds and the stuffy access to the ground. Drawing on my words from Saturday, my mate said to one of the Limerick supporters: “Welcome to hell.” I assumed he didn’t get jumped on and beaten up by a mob of angry Limerick fellas when the text arrived.
He may have just kept running after dropping the incendiary comment, but the desperate weather added to the misery of Limerick’s task, as they came looking to hoist their flag on top of Clare’s fortress after hoping to sack it. This had all the spiky elements of a real edgy and local rivalry. It was damp and miserable, but the hail of sleet and snow didn’t quench the sparks that were flying on the field before the ball was even thrown in. There was a great buzz in the ground. Despite the conditions, the crowd of over 8,000 really got value for money, as the two teams went at it hard from the word go.
Aaron Gillane and Jack Browne went to war on each other for the whole game. At different stages, fellas were on the deck after being flattened, on and off the ball. There is no love lost between these players. Most of that heated tension may stem from these players knowing one another so well at this stage, both from schools and colleges levels, but Limerick’s success last year has really sharpened the edge.
Clare felt they left an All-Ireland after them in 2018. Watching Limerick get that All-Ireland increased the pain. The All-Ireland champions coming to town will always dial up the heat a little more, but it’s a whole different dynamic for Clare when that status belongs to Limerick. They’re not used to it... and they obviously don’t like it.
I suppose it’s similar to when we went into the Gaelic Grounds in the late 1990s and Limerick were driven
demented that we carried the status of All-Ireland champions that they desperately craved. Many of these Clare players have All-Ireland medals from 2013, but the ill-feeling Limerick had towards Clare back then is just being felt by the Clare players now. It’s not personal. It’s not business either. It’s just human nature.
Despite winning two All- Irelands with Clare, I’ve always said that one of my greatest memories in hurling was our epic clash with Limerick in the 1996 Munster final. We were beaten by one point in a
classic. It was absolute devastation but it was still one of those day-of-days, an occasion of coiled intensity in a heatwave, a mammoth battle in what felt like a coliseum.
In this life, we rarely get to experience that kind of sensation, when you feel like the front-line warriors going to battle for the soul of your own people. Well, in early June, these Clare and Limerick players will have a similar opportunity in the Gaelic Grounds, because the place will be jumping with an electricity that only this kind of
rivalry, in these kinds of circumstances, can generate.
Clare needed a result more than Limerick yesterday to try and secure that quarter-final spot, but you could see that Limerick were keen to make a huge statement too, especially after their experience in Ennis last June. It looked like being Limerick’s day for most of the match, but Clare still refused to allow it happen. Limerick, in the end, similarly refused to let Clare walk away with the two points and another home win.
I don’t really like the term, but yesterday was all about making statements and laying down markers. Yet, I felt one of the biggest statements made was by the Clare management to their own players. I don’t know was Davy McInerney injured when he was taken off, but his substitution still smacked of a shot being fired over his head. Mac was poor for Hegarty’s goal, but Oisin O’Brien did really well when introduced.
The weather was an obvious factor, but Clare still looked very one-dimensional on their own puckout for long stages, with most of them being lamped down on Peter Duggan. Duggy struggled to get into the match. That may have been a factor in him missing four frees, but Duggy showed his mettle and mental strength when nailing a couple of tricky placed balls from distance late on.
Shane Golden was another huge positive. I’ve always felt he was one of the top 15 hurlers in Clare and he proved again yesterday he can be. His goal was decisive when Clare were trailing by four points, while he set up Duggan’s goal in the 58th minute, which put Clare ahead for the first time since the opening minutes.
Their tackling was ferocious. That swarm they hit teams with gobbles fellas up and turns over a huge amount of possession. Limerick are very tactical. They’re defensive-minded, but they break at massive pace before pinging the ball to the corners for their runners. Even with the soaked pitch, it was obvious some of their scores were right off the tactics board.
A lot of their gameplan is centred around Gearoid Hegarty and Kyle Hayes. As Kyle begins to get fitter now, he’s going to get even better. Along with Tom Morrissey, the distance those three guys clock up is savage. They definitely are the engine room in this Limerick machine.
The conditions and the pitch reduced the capacity for the usual high scores in these matches, but the low wide count was testament to the conditions and how well the players adapted to them. Fellas knew there was no point taking pot shots from distance, so a lot of ball was transferred into the full-
forward lines. It was a big test of both full-back lines and both manfully embraced the challenge. The pace remained hectic throughout. It wasn’t an easy game to referee, but I thought Paud O’Dwyer struggled with that pace. Some of the stoppages were unnecessary and they definitely disrupted the flow of the match. Clare will be disappointed again with their free count, but I thought some of the frees were soft. That last free which Gillane slotted for the equaliser was a marginal call, but I reiterate, it wasn’t an easy game to referee, especially given how spiky the match was.
Clare were missing John Conlon, but they still emptied themselves to try and get a result. Limerick came to town to win, but they still bossed much of the match without some of their big names. It’s only when you look at the match programme that you realise how much depth Limerick have. Paddy O’Loughlin was really solid again yesterday. Peter Casey’s three points from play was a massive haul in the conditions and in such a hostile environment.
Clare are still reliant on results next weekend to ensure that quarter-final spot, but both managements will be happy with the outcome, especially now with the two-week break before Limerick, and likely Clare, play again. It certainly presents that opportunity to go back to the training ground and work on the areas that need addressing.
Despite having a relegation final next weekend, Offaly will still be happier than any other county after yesterday’s win against Carlow. I was listening to Michael Verney, the former Offaly player, on Shane Stapleton’s podcast during the week, and he sounded positive after Offaly’s display last Sunday against Galway. Offaly shipped a bad beating, but Verney still thought that they showed something in defeat.
The disappointment is even more acute for Carlow when they know that a win yesterday would have been enough to reach a quarter-final. Laois did well against Dublin, but their defeat still presented Carlow with an opportunity that they weren’t able to take at home.
At least that match was played, unlike all the other games in the south yesterday. The volume of rain which fell, with all that surface water, made underfoot conditions so dangerous that those games had to be called off, but it must be highly frustrating for the supporters who travelled when the games were postponed so late. At least the Wexford and Kilkenny people didn’t have to travel too far, but the Galway players and supporters must have been sickened. They had the same misfortune last year after their league quarter-final against Wexford was postponed on the day of the game.
So much for the sunny south-east.