For our purposes this game should have been played at High Noon, because all week we were hearing that this would be a western classic.
Neighbours! Rivals! All Limerick-Clare needed was the theme music to The Big Country rather than the Cranberries, surely, to do justice to the gunslingers facing off across the dusty Ennis Road.
Slightly off the Ennis Road, maybe, but you get the drift.
In reality Limerick were far too good for Clare, beating them by 18 points. All week we’d told ourselves that it didn’t matter if Limerick were going well because Clare would always put it up to them, and vice versa, because that’s what history taught us.
Yesterday showed that history is a poor consolation faced with All-Ireland champions fired by resolve and a fluent gameplan.
In one sense the lack of stirring competition was a pity, because there was a real Munster Championship feel to the Ennis Road, a description which needs no further detail: if you know you don’t need to ask, and if you need to ask you just don’t know. The crowd was 29,611 but the occasion seemed bigger.
At least until the game started. Limerick threw down, to maintain the parlance of the Old West, in the very first minute by going straight down the middle at the Clare defence, and the Banner needed a brave David McInerney interception to hold them out. There were three more clear goal chances shared by the sides in the first six minutes, with Sean Finn of Limerick barring the way to goal twice in those early exchanges.
The action wasn’t all Winchesters blasting either - witness Declan Hannon’s elegant dispossession of Peter Duggan early on, as neat a bit of pickpocketing as you can expect to see - but about six minutes in Limerick started humming.
Aaron Gillane was unmarkable up front and the Limerick engine room around the middle revved up. Those looping support runs started to bear fruit and Clare were pressured into turnovers; Limerick blasted points over from long range and the Clare defending bordered on the desperate as they tried to to keep the men in green and white from hitting goals.
Analysing the home side’s 0-15 to 0-7 half-time lead produces a clear contrast. Limerick hit four points from frees, while Clare had one point from play. The visitors’ struggle to create a platform up front was directly related to their problems trying to contain Limerick around the middle, where the likes of Cian Lynch and William O’Donoghue were sharking their way through knots of players and hurting Clare with calm distribution.
The All-Ireland champions continued in a similar vein in the second half and the game was over as a contest long before Gillane’s goal with ten minutes left.
That goal, incidentally, was preceded by a turn so sumptuous the entire attendance broke into a spontaneous purr when they saw it.
The after-match numbers aren’t flattering to Clare in the cold light of day either - one score from play in the first half, three points from play in the game - and the flip side of those stats is true.
Limerick’s defence was awesome. Clare’s attacking spearhead was eclipsed totally - Shane O’Donnell and Podge Collins were replaced, Tony Kelly got a point and John Conlon was held scoreless.
When Limerick manager John Kiely referred to his side’s cohesion and work as a unit afterwards, that mass defending - and slick transition - was surely what he had in mind.
“I’m very pleased with the peformance, with our attitude all over the field, and we got our cohesiveness as a team right.
“That’s what the problem we had against Cork was, nobody was helping other players out, the next fella, while today we had fellas helping each other out all over the field.
“We’re getting to the pitch of it, I think. We came off the club month and we weren’t sharp - that was seen in the first game and we’re getting sharper and sharper now.
“I’m very happy with the performance, very happy with the workrate and attitude.”
The consolations were obviously fewer in the Banner camp. Joint-manager Donal Moloney acknowledged that it had been “a difficult week, and a difficult day today.” He added: “Fair play to Limerick, they brought a really top class performance today. They are a good bit ahead of us throughout the entire game.
“Guys wanted to react. Limerick also wanted to react as well. They brought the best performance today through the field. We have got to recognise that.
“No matter what we tried they seemed to be able to close us down. They seemed to have more energy than us. I don’t know whether last week’s defeat had an impact on us in terms of the energy we brought to the table but Limerick were definitely a good bit ahead of us today.
“I’ll tell you in a week’s time (how difficult it is to turn around). But seriously, of course it is difficult.”
Coupled with Saturday night’s win for Cork over Waterford, yesterday’s result means the competition remains alive on the last weekend. More than alive: one county will be bitterly disappointed after events in Ennis and Thurles next Sunday, as teatime that afternoon will end their season.
Limerick-Tipperary will surely - surely - provide a contest worthy of the name. Kiely’s point about Limerick shaking off a little rust and reaching the necessary pitch is well made, and in Tipperary they’ll encounter a machine that hasn’t yet been troubled by an opponent in the championship. The key here may be Limerick’s half-forwards and their thirst for work, as a decent service from the Tipperary half-backs.... Sorry, the competitive element died so early yesterday afternoon that a glance in the crystal ball was about the most entertaining option left to us as the sun began to sink behind the Clare hills.
The Banner face a hard week after yesterday’s defeat, which exposed issues with their restarts and ball retention up front. In retrospect the defeat of Waterford in Walsh Park has been devalued by the Deise’s self-combustion since then, and two double-digit defeats aren’t ideal preparation for a Cork side with everything to play for.
Yet Clare are at home. They still have a chance of making it through to the All-Ireland series. Cork don’t have a great record in Cusack Park. Could the Banner turn it around and kickstart their season in the middle of June?
Hard to see. Possible, but difficult to conjure right now.
The long stretches yesterday when Limerick were bossing the game and moving the ball smoothly through the lines also left plenty of time for speculation.
Why the high number of Munster hurling blow-outs this year compared to last season, for instance? What happened to the power of home advantage which seemed so strong in 2018? Have teams now become accustomed to the demands and able to pace themselves, and condition their players to peak at the right time?
Good to see, though, that however high the stakes, people haven’t compromised their standards.
At one point in the first half in Limerick yesterday Clare won a hotly contested line-ball - Banner joint-manager Moloney came hurrying down the line to encourage the linesman and Limerick boss Kiely invited him to resume his position in front of his own bench with extreme prejudice.
The game was still a contest as Peter Duggan was winding up to take the sideline, but Kiely couldn’t help himself. The Limerick man stepped in quickly to remove the 65-metre flag near Duggan in case it interfered with the Clareman’s stroke.
This writer asked Kiely about the gesture after the game.
“Isn’t it what any decent man would do?” was the response.
Old West or New West, the courtesies still obtain.
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