They’ve always had each other. When Clare produced their finest team in two decades to beat Cork and Tipperary in 1955, it was a young and unconsidered Limerick outfit, Mackey’s Greyhounds, who tripped them up in the Munster final on an afternoon of sub-Saharan heat on the Ennis Road. When Clare produced their next successful team two decades later, the bunch that won two National Leagues in the late 1970s, the big championship rivalry was with Cork but – all politics being local — the rivalry with Limerick wasn’t far behind.
And when the Banner eventually got around to winning All-Irelands under a certain gentleman from Feakle, it was Limerick who stood in their way. First at Semple Stadium in the 1995 Munster final, when the walls at last came tumbling down, and then the following year at the Gaelic Grounds on another boiling Ennis Road day: Ciarán Carey and all that.
They’ve always had each other and they always will. Green and white, saffron and blue. Limerick 34 championship wins, Clare 16, one draw. It is among the most immediate, the most visceral of GAA rivalries. And the most geographically unavoidable; when Clare people head to a Munster championship match they have to cross the Shannon.
Tomorrow they may choose to take the long way around but they’ll reach Croke Park nonetheless. Upwards of 70,000 spectators from the two counties. There’ll they see....what, exactly? In terms of its unknowability, this All-Ireland semi-final is like last Sunday’s retreaded, except with that tribal frisson that makes judging the result even more hazy and complicated a process. Clare or Limerick? Get out the Grand National pin.
Are there ever favourites in a semi-final? Contrary to the cliché, yes. Are there favourites in a 2013 All-Ireland hurling semi-final? No. Are there favourites in a 2013 All-Ireland hurling semi-final that pits Clare against Limerick? Even less so.
The one and only given tomorrow is that it’ll be tactical and it’ll be tight, in terms of the exchanges on the field and probably, though not inevitably, in terms of the scoreboard at the final whistle too.
Last Sunday was a throwback to the game of old. Fifteen against 15, man on man, battle in the open field. No flying columns or improvised explosive devices or other tactical curlicues. Fix bayonets and charge. Up and at ’em. It won’t be like that tomorrow.
We’ve a fair idea of what we’ll get with Limerick. With Limerick we nearly always do. We can’t be sure of what we’ll get with Clare. That’s what makes them so dangerous.
Limerick are meat and two veg, served with a couple of twists (Seamus Hickey floating, the rota of scheduled substitutions). Three half-backs, three midfielders, three half-forwards. Nine men across the three lines in the middle third of the field.
How do you react to that? You make sure you’re not outnumbered, that’s how. Davy Fitz, who has never met a tactic he didn’t like, will counter by stuffing the trenches with his own troops, 18 men between the two 45m lines.
What was it Yeats wrote? Great hatred, little room. Obviously ‘hatred’ is overdoing it – the current relationship between the counties lacks the seethe it possessed in the mid-1990s — but you get the idea.
Amid this heat and smoke, amid this carefully planned chaos, will step – or perhaps not – two or three opening batsmen who can sculpt a ball beyond the cover and rattle off tailored passes to the men in space. To Darach Honan at one end, to Seanie Tobin and Graeme Mulcahy at the other. Balls of the type that Tony Kelly lasered to Conor McGrath for Clare’s goal against Galway three weeks ago. A single goal may well decide the outcome.
If there’s to be a game-breaker for Limerick it will probably be the subs again. For Clare? Perhaps Colm Galvin, a chap blessed with the balance of a ballet dancer and whose stats with the U21s are off the scale.
Looking on from the other side of the whitewash will be two of the most dissimilar managers imaginable. John Allen, who’s quite the most laidback man on the planet, and Davy Fitz, who, well, isn’t. He does seem markedly calmer on the sideline this year, however, a quarter-final spat with Brian Gavin apart.
He’ll need to be so when the temperature rises tomorrow. Because if Limerick are a team in the mould of their manager they’ll keep striving, calmly and patiently, to do the right thing until the final whistle.
Not that the fans on either side won’t harbour justified qualms about their own lads. Limerick haven’t had a match outside the Gaelic Grounds, they haven’t had one for five weeks and they’re facing their third outing of the summer as opposed to Clare’s sixth.
These are small, predictable, almost necessary worries. A bigger one is the question of how influential their subs might prove in a losing situation. Shane Dowling, Niall Moran et al tilted the balance against Tipp and Cork when the game was there for the winning. Will they manage to work a similar oracle here if Limerick are trailing by, say, five points midway through the second half? Watching the Clare U21s against Tipperary the other week, it was just like – as the saying goes – watching Brazil. Honey in flow. Sweeping and portentous statements like the one I’m about to make should emphatically be avoided by journalists, but, really, if these guys have not won two All-Ireland senior titles by the end of the decade they’ll have underachieved.
Too often you get the feeling they’re over thinking matters. They’re too studied, too mannered, too controlled. Sometimes you feel like screaming at them to let off the hand brake and just bloody go for it!!!
As for Honan, despite his usefulness as an outlet for attacks, sometimes you wonder if they secretly reckon he gets in the way and would prefer if he wasn’t there at all.
All of that said, they’ve learned an entire degree course of lessons this summer that will stand to them in the coming years, among them the importance of taking one’s goal chances (versus Cork) and the inadvisability of falling asleep on the job (v Wexford). And they’ll surely realise that Galway were at their worst in the quarter-final, giving away a plethora of infuriatingly unnecessary frees in the first half.
And after all of that? Limerick. I got out the Grand National pin...
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