When Limerick step out onto their home turf in the Gaelic Grounds next week it will be for their first Munster decider since 2002 and the heady days of the All-Ireland three-in-a-row.
Limerick had entered the game as underdogs but inspired by the contributions of senior stars Kevin Downes and Declan Hannon up front belied that tag with a performance of subtlety, pace and power.
All over the pitch they were sharper, faster, hungrier and from first whistle to last always looked the more likely winners.
Playing into a slight breeze, the visitors had the ideal start, a goal within two minutes from flying corner-forward Michael Ryan, and by the 10th minute had increased that lead to six points, 1-4 to 0-1, courtesy of points from midfielder Seán O’Brien (two), Shane Dowling and Ryan, Clare’s reply coming from their speedster in the corner, Paudge Collins.
The next 10 minutes saw Clare on top, a regular supply of good ball to the attack resulting in points from senior stars Conor McGrath (two) and Cathal McInerney (another senior) and fellow half-forward Tony Kelly, this year’s minor captain.
Cue the entry of Kevin Downes, and after a quiet start the powerful youngster, who still has two years left at this level, began to assert himself on the edge of the square.
He helped himself to three well-taken points before the break and that, together with points from Ryan, William Griffin and Niall Kennedy, was enough to see Limerick seven points ahead at half time, 1-10 to 0-6, and with the breeze behind them in the second half.
On the resumption it was Clare now with the better start, half-time substitute David O’Halloran with a point inside a minute.
McInerney then powered a shot past Limerick keeper Aaron Murphy from close range after a pass from the ultra-dangerous McGrath, followed by a Tony Kelly point. Suddenly it was all back in the melting-pot, 1-10 to 1-8. Minor Shane Dowling ! settled Limerick nerves with a fine point after a huge Murphy puck-out and, using their superior size and power, gradually the visitors began again to impose themselves. Points from long-range free-taking midfielder Conor Allis, Hannon and Dowling (two) soon had them back in the driving-seat and when Downes robbed full-back and Clare captain Patrick O’Connor on the end-line in the 50th minute and batted to the net to make it 2-16 to 1-11, it was all but over.
Clare fought to the finish, the flying O’Halloran and Conor McGrath constantly probing for a weakness in the Limerick defence — they found none.
Full-back Patrick Begley was immense, corner-backs Alan Dempsey and Steve O’Reilly fast and sure when attacking the ball and emergency centre-back Cian Hayes — filling in for domestic accident victim James O’Brien — commanded the middle. Limerick also had to do without senior star Graeme Mulcahy, forced to cry off after suffering a shoulder injury in last Sunday’s All-Ireland quarter-final loss to Waterford.
This was an impressive win for Limerick as manager Leo O’Connor’s charges maintained the 2011 good news story for the Treaty county hurlers for another week at least.
On the basis of this display Cork had best be on their guard.
Scorers for Limerick: K Downes 1-4; M Ryan 1-2; S Dowling 0-4 (2f); C Allis 0-3 (1f, 2 65s); S O’Brien 0-2; W Griffin, N Kennedy, D Hannon, M Carmody 0-1 each.
Scorers for Clare: C McGrath 0-5 (3f, 1 65); C McInerney 1-1; T Kelly 0-3; D O’Halloran 0-3; L Markham 0-2; P Collins 0-1.
A Murphy; A Dempsey, P Begley, S O’Reilly; C McNamara, C Hayes, T O’Callaghan; C Allis, S O’Brien; S Dowling, D Hannon, N Kennedy; M Ryan, K Downes, W Griffin.
Subs: B Cleary for O’Callaghan (41); M Carmody for Griffin (44); S Madden for Ryan (61); B O’Connor for McNamara (59); T Fleming for Downes (62).
K Brennan; D Nash, P O’Connor, P Flanagan; K Ryan, C Chaplin, S O’Halloran; C Ryan, L Markham; C McInerney, S Golden, T Kelly; P Collins, C McGrath, F Kennedy.
Subs: D O’Halloran for C Ryan (30); A Lynch for Kennedy (30); J Fennessey for Golden (41).
Referee: C Lyons (Cork).