Clare have only won one game in Munster since 2008. It hasn’t been good enough, writes Anthony Daly.
On Tuesday, I was speaking to Joe McKenna, director of the Limerick hurling underage Academy and liaison officer with the senior hurlers. I asked him how Limerick were going. When Joe didn’t give much away, I started hopping the ball.
“I suppose you’d have to fancy Clare anyway, they seem to be going that bit better.”
That drew Joe out straight away from behind his cover. The Limerickness in him couldn’t let that observation pass unopposed. “Ah, there won’t be much in it,” said Joe. “There never is.”
Limerick never fear Clare. They never did. It’s similar in Clare. We always feel we have a chance of beating them too. That’s the way the results have panned out over the last two decades two, where the counties have shared every second win, in a neat sequence.
Clare, Limerick, Clare, Limerick, Clare, Limerick…
The counties are so intertwined and connected that neither will let the other out of their sight, or allow one to get ahead of the other. It’s funny too how the wheel keeps turning. I am very close with the likes of Joe now, given that I’ve been coaching the Limerick minors for the last three seasons, with Joe effectively as my boss.
My first memory of a big Clare-Limerick game was the 1981 Munster final. I was only 12. My main focus that day was on the minor game beforehand, where Clare were playing Tipperary. Our neighbour, Victor O’Loughlin, was lining out for at centre forward for Clare. It was huge for me to have such a close tangible connection to that game, which heightened by emotional investment in the match. I remember watching Victor pucking around that morning in Madden’s Terrace before he left for Thurles, and being transfixed by every ball he hit.
The day began like a dream when Clare won their first ever Munster minor title and ‘ our Vic’ bagging a goal but the dream was soon soured when big Joe took a wrecking ball to Clare in the senior match. In my last year as Clare manager in 2006, we hammered Limerick in the qualifiers in Cusack Park. Joe was manager but he stepped down afterwards. I took no satisfaction in seeing that happening but with the Banner and the Treaty, the wheel will always keep turning and I’ll be involved in bringing the minor team out to Cusack Park for a Munster derby semi-final at the end of the month.
The proximity, especially along the border, has always added to the intrigue between the counties but an extra grain of spice has been added this week because of the deeply personal connection to Clare amongst the Limerick management. Paul Kinnerk was a massive part of Clare’s underage success. He was involved with Clare too in 2013, as was Joe O’Connor, who is now Limerick S&C coach.
Alan Cunningham will shake hands with his son Aaron on Sunday morning and wish him the best of luck before putting on his Limerick tracksuit. Alan is involved with Limerick as goalkeeping coach.
I saw Gerry O’Connor say during the week that Kinnerk would know exactly the type of hurling they like, and would want to play. Kinnerk set much of that template but it’s one thing knowing it, and another thing stopping it. You need the players and I’m not sure if Limerick have enough threatening forwards yet to really hurt this Clare defence. On the other hand, maybe they can because I’m not sure about this Clare defence myself. They are all good hurlers but they haven’t played together that often. Limerick certainly won’t fear them and I’m sure Kinnerk will have some kind of a plan to try and get at them.
Paul has a certain philosophy in playing the game, but that will take some time to fully bed in. Overall, Limerick have an excellent management team but they will all need time to make this fully work.
Limerick did win an All- Ireland U21 title but Clare won three of them, and four if you include the 2009 success, so Clare are at a more advanced stage in their development.
Limerick supporters won’t want to hear that. They are impatient. I heard it inside myself in Limerick after the first league game, when they lost to Wexford. “Ah, that won’t do. That’s not Limerick’s natural game.” It may not be but that is the direction Limerick have chosen to go and the fans just have to have faith in them to see it through.
Limerick have plenty of talent. From working at minor level, there is more of it coming behind them. But you can’t always just throw in young lads first time out. It worked in Cork two weeks ago but it didn’t work with Dublin last week. No matter how many lads you want to blood, you have to be careful in managing that husbandry between youth and experience, which is still a difficult equation for Limerick to balance.
There is still no reason why Limerick can’t win this game. If Clare are any way complacent, or just not at the right pitch, Limerick will sense it immediately. So will their supporters. Their supporters will probably outnumber Clare tomorrow. I always compared Limerick to a type of big wave. When they come, they can sweep you away.
The wave at the end of the 1996 Munster semi-final was a tsunami that washed us away.
Even when we beat them in Ennis in 1993, Limerick launched an unmerciful onslaught late on, which nearly got them over the line. I saw that myself first hand in Thurles in 1981.
Clare have made no secret of how much they have targeted this game all year so they should be ready. Podge Collins is reportedly flying. Tony Kelly is a big game player but you’d hope that the long club campaign hasn’t blunted his edge.
You saw that with last Sunday, in how a long club season with Cuala certainly seemed to effect David Treacy and Oisín Gough, both of whom looked stuck to the ground.
Still, Kelly was made for days like these. Shane O’Donnell and Conor McGrath love these eternal summer Sundays too. O’Donnell and McGrath have had their injury problems but they will be fresh.
With Tipperary gone, all other four counties will see a Munster title as a realistic target, but Clare’s hunger and desire has to be stronger than anyone else.
Our last Munster title was nearly 20 years ago. We’ve only won one game in the province since 2008. It hasn’t been good enough.
We just haven’t got it right and that is the challenge now for the management.
I remember coming out of the hotel in Cashel before my first championship game as Clare manager in 2004 against Waterford, and asking Seanie McMahon if we were right. “We were never more ready,” he said. We got annihilated.
You’d just hope Clare are fully tuned and perfectly pitched this time around. They seem to have been impressive in recent challenge matches, especially against Galway and Waterford.
Limerick won all their challenge games too but those games are never a fully accurate barometer of where a team is at.
We will soon find out. I don’t expect much to be in this game. That is the very nature of derby games.
Clare were the better team last year but they still only won by four points. I expect Clare to win again tomorrow, by a similar margin.
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