It’s not Celtic-Rangers but there’s a serrated edge to Clare-Limerick

Dan Morrissey and Peter Duggan battle it out during Limerick’s loss to Clare in last season’s Munster SHC clash at Cusack Park, Ennis. Tomorrow is another opportunity for the Banner to prove how much of a fortress the Park really is. Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

As I was making my way under the Kinnane Stand before the Clare-Galway All-Ireland semi-final replay last August, I met a plethora of Limerick guys on stewarding duties in Thurles for the day.

Sound fellas who’d been knocking around the Gaelic Grounds in an official capacity or giving a hand with various teams in the underage Academy.

They weren’t being disrespectful to Clare but their tone was more business, than being personal, or rolling out any animosity stemming from such a heated local rivalry.

‘Best of luck to ye today Dalo but we’d nearly prefer to be meeting Galway in the final,’ was the gist of the conversation from the Limerick fellas.

I was a little bit taken aback that they were so gung-ho for Galway, and not keen to get another crack at Clare, who had hammered them in the final Round Robin game in Munster. ‘Jeez, ye’d prefer to play the All-Ireland champions than us?’ I said back to the lads. And the replies were pretty unanimous. ‘By God, we would. We don’t want to meet Clare again.’

Limerick clearly felt they had a better chance of beating Galway than Clare. There would certainly have been far greater tension and pressure on both sets of players if it was a Clare-Limerick All-Ireland final. The Clare lads would have been confident but I wonder too what would have unfolded in the minds of the Limerick players over those two weeks prior to the final?

Would they have asked themselves some hard questions after losing their three previous championship meetings between 2016-’18?

John Kiely and Paul Kinnerk would probably have flipped the mindset, putting it up to the players:

'Hi, we have to bate this crowd. And no sweeter place to bate them than the biggest day of all.’

It’s not easy to try and beat a team twice in the championship. We found out that ourselves first hand in 1997 with Tipperary. The pressure on us the second time around, in the All-Ireland final, was incredible. If they had met Limerick again last August, the Clare boys would have had to deal with those mental challenges.

All those unknowns are the spice and flavour in the brew and it will be stirred up again tomorrow in Ennis. The headline of the back page in the Clare People newspaper on Tuesday more or less summed up the mood in Clare anyway. ‘All set for Old Firm.’

For the craic, I took a photograph of the page, which had an animated picture of a young lad in a Clare jersey, and sent it on to a few of my buddies around Limerick.

It’s not Celtic-Rangers but there is probably more of a serrated edge to the rivalry now that Limerick are All- Ireland champions. It was a different time, with a different group of core characters, but it definitely felt that way for Clare-Limerick matches in the late 1990s, when Limerick really resented that Clare were All-Ireland champions.

The heat will be even more dialled up with Limerick coming to try and sack Clare’s fortress. Clare have proved again in this campaign how hard they are to beat in Cusack Park, and with Tipp and Cork coming to Ennis in May and June, tomorrow is another opportunity for Clare to prove how much of a fortress the Park really is.

Cusack Park, Ennis
Cusack Park, Ennis

I read a stat recently where the Cusack Park pitch is actually bigger than Croke Park but there is that claustrophobic element to the place with how close the crowd are to the players. I saw a couple of people commenting online that the Park was a ‘toxic’ place to come to for away supporters.

My attitude would be ‘Keep it toxic’. I’m not advocating hurling hooliganism or firing flares into the away supporters but you want the opposition thinking that this is the last place you want to come to when you’re looking for a win. Thurles, Pairc Ui Chaoimh and the Gaelic Grounds certainly don’t carry that same fear factor for visiting teams.

When Man United went to Galatasaray for a Champions League game over two decades ago, they were met with the greeting, ‘Welcome to Hell’. We’re not like the Turks in Clare. The Park isn’t as bad as the old Ali Sami Yen Stadium but, with the way the Round Robin system is now, and how important your two home games are, you’ve got to back your own crowd to the hilt, and get the place hopping.

For my sins, I’m a Tottenham supporter. Mauricio Pochettino gets his share of stick but he has done some job considering that Spurs have been playing all their home games at Wembley for the last two years. It doesn’t feel like much of a home ground because every team loves going to Wembley. It’s certainly no fortress for Spurs.

Nobody likes going to the Park but Limerick will be ready for the challenge tomorrow. Limerick are already through to the quarter-finals but you’ll probably see less experimentation from Kiely after his team went down to Cork last week. Clare are in a decent position but if they lose, and there is a draw in the Kilkenny-Wexford game, they’ll more than likely miss out on a quarter-final.

Liam Sheedy said after last week’s defeat to Kilkenny that it wouldn’t be the end of the world if Tipperary failed to make the league quarter-finals. Liam was surely thinking of how Tipp are going to calibrate their championship preparations with a couple of Tipp clubs games in April, but Clare don’t have any club championship that month. So a defeat tomorrow could leave Clare without a serious game for ten weeks. With that in mind, and taking Fortress Cusack Park into account, I expect a Clare win.

I liked what I saw from Cork in the Gaelic Grounds last weekend. They were definitely more tactical than at any stage I’ve seen Cork under John Meyler. It was their best performance too of this campaign. Meyler may not have any great interest in winning a league title but three successive wins in 15 days would really give Cork a strong momentum heading into the business end of the league. Having the UCC contingent back, especially after winning the Fitzgibbon, will also give the squad a lift.

Tipp need to win but it’s not paramount with no relegation, and — after last year — it may give Tipp that extra window to get their club championship rolling even earlier in April.

If this game was at Páirc Uí Chaoimh, I think you’d have seen a much greater edge to the match, especially when the sides are due to meet there in the opening round of the championship in mid-May. I still expect a decent contest but home advantage should sway it for Cork.

After yesterday’s downpour the pitches around the country will be a little bit softer but that shouldn’t inhibit good hurling. Wexford Park’s location in the heart of the sunny south-east though, should see it in a healthier condition.

Both teams will certainly be up for it, as usual. Davy Fitz is always looking to get one over on Brian Cody but their last meeting at the venue – the 2018 league semi-final – will certainly be on Wexford minds. Because Kilkenny dished out a hiding to them that day.

Wexford showed their fitness and character last weekend against Clare to turn another potential hiding into a near miraculous victory. Cody will be delighted too with the manner of Kilkenny’s win against Tipp, especially when he gradually seems to be piecing the spine of the team together in the absence of the Ballyhale contingent and Cillian Buckley.

Conor Delaney was brilliant at full-back. If Delaney can settle in the number 3 position and nail it down for the summer, that would allow Pádraig Walsh’s presence and attacking thrust from the middle of the park to fill in another major piece of the jigsaw.

Cody will still want to win this league, as he does every year. Fitzy will want Wexford to stay in this league as long as they can. This is one of the hardest games of the weekend to call but home advantage may be decisive again.

One of the biggest games of the weekend is Carlow-Offaly. With Dublin expected to beat Laois, a victory for Carlow will ensure their place in the restructured Division 1 next season.

Offaly are already facing a relegation final but if they’ve any hope of staying up, they have to start showing something this week ahead of next week’s survival test.

Waterford will fancy beating Galway but they’ll perceive a home win to be even more important now with the news that they’ll have their two championship matches in Walsh Park this summer.

Galway is the ideal testing ground and Waterford will want to start doing what Clare and Dublin have managed to achieve on their local patch – get the locals revved up, dig in, make themselves hard to beat. And turn the place into hell.

Anyway, I intend spending the rest of the day nailing some placards to a few stakes, whipping out some paint and a brush and getting ready to extend the invitations to the Limerick hordes.

‘Welcome to …!

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