As dress rehearsals go, this Munster final appetiser did not disappoint.
Okay, the quality of hurling was not of the highest order, with understrength Limerick again slightly off-colour, but where the entertainment barometer was concerned, the mercury rose and rose to the point of almost spilling over as this frenetic contest neared a conclusion.
Probably best to start with the closing act, a fitting curtain fall to leave the capacity crowd of 18,129 eagerly looking ahead to the Munster final rematch in three weeks.
In what proved to be Munster championship moving day, the Clare management and players would have instructed you to go and lie down if you told them yesterday morning that they’d progress to the provincial decider with a round to spare without having sent Limerick back down the M18 nursing a first championship defeat in three years.
Mind you, with two of the three injury-time minutes elapsed, a Tony Kelly-inspired Clare stood poised to become the first team since Kilkenny in July of 2019 to overcome Limerick at championship-time. The Treaty, though, didn’t get to chasing a third All-Ireland on the trot by wilting or tightening up when the result is still there for the pinching as the sandglass stops pouring.
Not a hint of panic crept into their play as they chased an equaliser after Sean Meehan and Ryan Taylor had taken the Banner from one behind to one in front entering time added on.
And they had their levelling opportunity when John Conlon fouled opposite number six Declan Hannon on the Limerick 65-metre line. Diarmuid Byrnes, as he had done all afternoon, proved equal to the task to ensure a share of the spoils.
It was an important point for Limerick. Given the events of last Sunday night where a Limerick player got involved with a Tipperary opponent, a first championship defeat in 13 games here would have made for two successive bumps in the Limerick road and a possible changing of the conversation surrounding John Kiely's team and their latest push for Liam MacCarthy honours.
Instead, the champions rescued a draw despite being a man down, the visitors having to make do with 14 men for the final 10 minutes after Gearóid Hegarty picked up a second yellow for an altercation with Aaron Fitzgerald.
But not alone did they finish without the two-time All-Star, they went the full afternoon minus the injured Aaron Gillane. And when you add in the absence of the injured Cian Lynch and Cathal O’Neill, along with the decision not to start either Darragh O’Donovan or Graeme Mulcahy, Limerick’s front eight was considerably weakened.
Yet still they found a way not to come off second best in a game where coming off second best would have had no impact on their Munster final progression.
A Kyle Hayes goal on 15 minutes shoved them into a 1-5 to 0-6 lead and while they were then outgunned by 0-7 to 0-2 in the ensuing 12 minutes, a wobble is all it proved for they had recaptured the lead less than five minutes later.
“Hugely satisfying,” said Kiely of his team’s display.
“Just super impressed with the guys who came into the team (Robbie Hanley, David Reidy, and Conor Boylan were late additions to the starting line-up). They all made valuable contributions.
“That is really good for our group going forward because the lads who had been carrying knocks, they know when they come into training, they have an added fight to try and win their place back.”
As for Clare, yesterday’s one-man Tony Kelly show has led to a resurfacing of old questions regarding the variety and balance of the Clare attack. Outside of David Fitzgerald and Ryan Taylor, in the second half, the supporting cast was far too short.
The Banner hit 15 first half points to stand level with Limerick at the break, all bar three of which came from the stick of Kelly. He was also responsible for their first four points of the second half, the roving assassin propping up all over the field as he pushed the visiting defence to the edge of torment.
Kelly’s 16th and final point positioned Clare 0-19 to 1-14 in front on the three-quarter hour mark. Four of the game’s next five scores, though, would arrive at the other end as a combination of trademark Limerick swarm tackling, led by Hegarty, and Byrne’s placed-ball accuracy nudged the Treaty 1-18 to 0-20 in front on 55 minutes.
From there to the finish, the two neighbours matched each other flag for flag.
“We had a big crowd and a little bit of expectation. Our own supporters came in their droves, and we were under a little bit of pressure to make sure we didn't disappoint them. It was important for us to back up that expectation,” said Brian Lohan.
That they did, Clare’s championship credentials taking another step in the right direction.
(0-16, 0-10 frees, 0-1 ‘65); D Ryan, D Fitzgerald, R Taylor (0-2 each); D McInerney, S Meehan (0-1 each).
D Byrnes (0-9, 0-7 frees, 0-1 ‘65); D Reidy (0-4 frees), G Hegarty (0-4 each); K Hayes (1-0); D O’Donovan, T Morrissey, S Flanagan, O O’Reilly (0-1 each).
E Quilligan; R Hayes, C Cleary, P Flanagan; D Ryan, J Conlon, D McInerney; C Malone, J McCarthy; D Fitzgerald, S O’Donnell, R Taylor; T Kelly, P Duggan, R Mounsey.
A Fitzgerald for Ryan (temporary, 16-17); S Meehan for McCarthy (HT); D Reidy for Mounsey (46); A Fitzgerald for Flanagan (temporary, 60-65); A Shanagher for Duggan (73).
N Quaid; S Finn, M Casey, B Nash; D Byrnes, D Hannon, D Morrissey; W O’Donoghue, R Hanley; G Hegarty, D Reidy, T Morrissey; C Boylan, K Hayes, S Flanagan.
R English for Casey (temporary, 43-45); G Mulcahy for Boylan (53); D O’Donovan for Hanley, O O’Reilly for Flanagan (both 57).
C Lyons (Cork).