The biggest club game of the season on the Munster calendar, the senior hurling final, but you wouldn’t have thought so, from the numbers in the stand.
A mere 2,893 made the long journey from Clare and Limerick to Thurles, a pathetic attendance for a game of this significance.
Even on the field there was a malaise, and while both teams defended strongly, hunted in packs, there was nevertheless a shortage of the kind of blood-and-guts approach we’ve come to expect from what has always been a fiercely competitive hurling province.
“The lads are exhausted because they put in a magnificent effort,” said Crusheen manager Michael Browne and it was a reasonable assertion given the heavy conditions. Nevertheless there was something sadly lacking in Semple Stadium, something we’ve come to associate with this most famous of hurling venues. Atmosphere.
Even in a game that ended in a draw, from beginning to end that certainly contributed to the lack of real excitement.
The replay has been fixed for the same venue on Sunday but surely it’s time for the Munster Council to step in and mandate a toss for home advantage.
What galls is that the ingredients were all there. This is a high-powered Na Piarsaigh side, playing with the abandon and fearlessness of youth (seven Limerick U-21s), but coming up against a very experienced Crusheen side, a team on a mission; having this year defended their Clare title, they were determined to go one better and win out in Munster.
It started badly for the Clare champions, the normally deadly Pat Vaughan missing two frees that were well within his compass, Adrian Breen and minor sensation Shane Dowling then pointing for Na Piarsaigh to put them 0-2 to nothing ahead in the 5th minute. Already however the signs were there – this was going to be a dour in-the-trenches battle.
Crusheen were soon back on level terms, a huge point from outstanding wing-back Cathal Dillon getting them on the board, followed by a point from the experienced David Forde. Thus settled, the men from Clare began to take over, and though Dowling had another Na Piarsaigh point, after 16 minutes Crusheen were in front, 0-4 to 0-3.
Dowling then goaled for Na Piarsaigh with a bullet penalty in the 17th minute after full-forward Kevin Downes was pulled back. But for the remainder of the opening half it was all Crusheen. Five successive points (two from flying corner-forward Patrick Meaney) had them well placed at the break (0-9 to 1-3) in front. The scoring would have been greater but goal chances were missed when a rogue bounce of the ball in the cut-up turf.
Na Piarsaigh were first to score in the second half, Dowling again pointing the way, and again from a placed ball, and in fact this was to become the main story of the next 20 minutes as Crusheen indiscipline was repeatedly and unerringly punished by the Limerick minor star. The youngster scored five point in the second half, all from frees, the last of those coming in the 50th minute and it tied the scores (0-11 to 1-9).
Crusheen keeper Donal Touhy was a busy man in this period, three fine saves. Their attack struggled against an underrated Na Piarsaigh defence, captain Ger O’Grady, Fergus Kennedy and Vaughan having to chisel out a point apiece. Eventually they steadied the ship and a super point from halfway by Pat Vaughan give them the lead again on 51st minutes but it was negated by Na Piarsaigh sub John Madden.
As the minutes ticked away neither side was able to grasp the initiative. Centre-forward David Breen gave Na Piarsaigh the lead in the 57th minute. But again it was cancelled out within a minute by yet another Vaughan free.
Truth be told neither side deserved to win so it’s good they both get another chance. Next time, however give the supporters – the neutrals especially – a decent chance also.
“It wasn’t our doing to be in Thurles,” said Na Piarsaigh manager Seán Stack.
Who’s doing was it?
Scorers for Crusheen: P Vaughan 0-5 (0-3f, 0-1 65); P Meaney 0-2; F Kennedy 0-2; C O’Doherty (f), Cathal Dillon, J Fitzgibbon, D Forde, G O’Grady, 0-1 each.
Scorers for Na Piarsaigh: S Dowling 1-7 (1-0pen, 0-6f); A Breen, D Breen, C King, J Madden, 0-1 each.
Subs for Crusheen: C O’Donnell (Forde 55).
Subs for Na Piarsaigh: D Lynch (A Breen 30); A Hennessy (Cunningham 44); J Madden (Gleeson 50); D Quigley (O’Neill 61).
Referee: J Ryan (Tipperary).