Given my Clare loyalty and my Limerick connections to their underage Academy, I stole into Thurles yesterday like a thief in the night; head down, baseball cap pulled tightly down over my eyes, plain clothes, biro and notepad in my hand.
I just didn’t want to be listening to lads talking rot, after getting the early train! I don’t have any up-to-date Clare gear anyway. If I tried to pull on some of the old stuff, none of it would fit me.
It wasn’t an epic. It was highly tactical, as expected. There was no real fluency to the match. Nobody really stood out as exceptional bar the reignited Shane O’Donnell — wasn’t it lovely to see two other forwards near him?
Limerick will be disappointed but they showed great fight and spirit throughout, while that disappointment will be tempered by blooding five new players, and the realisation that Gearoid Hegarty and Diarmaid Byrnes are to return.
Clare weren’t brilliant but it’s a great way to go into a Munster final. Whoever wins the other semi-final now in two weeks time will probably be favourites for the decider. Clare have plenty to work on but that’s what you want at this time of the year. There is no point flying now. Mid to late summer is the time to take flight.
Limerick showed the potential within the group but however long their season goes on, their short-term priority has to be getting out of Division 1B. A lot has been written about the last three league champions coming from that division, and how that is the place to be, but that theory certainly doesn’t apply to Limerick given how long they have been marooned in the second tier.
There were so many moments from Limerick’s play yesterday that had 1B smeared all over them; guys slow in delivering the ball; getting swallowed up in possession; taking wrong options, options that are grand in 1B but fatal in 1A.
I don’t care what anyone says, Limerick have almost become institutionalised by the standard and pace of the second tier in the league and they just have to get out of there to break it.
The standard and intensity in 1A is vicious but the cost has been even higher for Limerick when you’re trying out so many young players. Division 1A is not an ideal place to use as a testing ground for rookies but at least they’ll be more battle-hardened from it.
And especially when Limerick have only had a handful of big summer matches over the last three years. By my count, they’ve only played six big championship matches since they almost took down Kilkenny in the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final. That’s where the spring deficit has really hurt them.
Limerick only got to the pitch of the game in sporadic bursts, which is a sign of a team not used to consistently playing at a higher level. One of the primary reasons they had a foothold in the game for so long was Clare’s meltdown on their own puckout.
They didn’t win one of Andy Fahy’s restarts until the eighth attempt, which was a short one to David McInerney.
Clare have loads to work on but one of the main concerns they will have is Tony Kelly. He is a genius but himself and Gearoid O’Connell looked stuck to the ground yesterday, as if the long club campaign with Ballyea had drained the energy out of them.
We saw that last Sunday with Cuala’s David Treacy and Oisín Gough for Dublin. I saw it myself with Clare. The two worst years we probably got out of Jamesie O’Connor, Seanie McMahon and Ollie Baker was when St Joseph’s Doora-Barefield reached successive All-Ireland finals in 1999 and 2000.
It takes an awful toll on the body early in the year and while sports science has alleviated a lot of the strain that the St Joseph’s boys would have felt back then, it’s very hard to mentally sustain that energy without a break.
You have to give huge credit to Seamus Hickey for how well he handled Kelly but that mental and physical toll I saw on Jamesie, Seanie and Baker nearly two decades ago was evident in Kelly yesterday.
Paraic Duffy is attempting to change the calendar season, to facilitate everything being played in the one year, but the new Championship proposals can’t come in quickly enough either. There was a decent crowd in Thurles yesterday but that match would have been made for Cusack Park or the Gaelic Grounds, especially when they’re charging people €30.
Cusack Park may not take the 25,000 or 30,000 you’d probably get there but there would be a mad scramble for tickets, which would generate the electric atmosphere that they’re expecting in Wexford Park on Saturday night.
The Gaelic Grounds would take the crowd and they’d more than likely pack it out because it’s nearly as much a home venue as Ennis for the east and south Clare people.
I still think a balance has to be found though. If Clare are drawn away to Cork next year in one of four games, how many Clare people are going to travel?
You don’t want a return to knockout but there is no comparison to yesterday and the epic in the Gaelic Grounds in 1996. But at least the home and away arrangement will stoke up the atmosphere and anticipation more than it did yesterday.
The only real explosion of emotion was when the goals were scored. Clare’s third goal effectively decided the match. Conor McGrath displayed the killer instinct in him but Nickie Quaid was slow off his line and Richie McCarthy had gone AWOL in the square.
You’d have expected more from Richie with his experience but that’s the kind of 1B virus that contaminates your play, mentally and physically.
imerick can still build on this performance. The draw will be infested with big sharks in a couple of weeks but Limerick should be targeting an All-Ireland quarter-final as a baseline requirement. Kyle Hayes showed some flashes of class after a very nervous first 20 minutes.
David Dempsey made a difference when he switched with Kyle and went in full-forward. Sean Finn made some big interventions, including the one where he tied up Kelly as TK was about to pull the trigger.
Peter Casey still has a lot to learn but he will. They all have to, even their experienced players. Some of the 11 wides Limerick hit in the first half were crazy.
Even though Limerick came with their usual wave, an unanswered 1-5 in five minutes, you never felt Clare were under massive pressure. They responded impressively to that barrage with their own scoring burst to lead by five points at half-time.
You knew Limerick would come again, which they did, but Clare drove on. They didn’t stride out of sight but they could have if they had nailed all their chances.
There is much more in TK and Podge Collins. There are issues to be ironed out in the half-back line, especially when they are run at. The free-taking is another issue. So is their own puckout. But they are all areas that Clare will feel they can improve on.
At least Clare are finally back in a Munster final. No-one in the county wanted a classic yesterday. They just wanted to get back to the big show.
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