Ironically, it was Limerick who had the dream start, with Niall Moran goaling in the second minute after some great work by Graeme Mulcahy and David Breen. Shane Dowling then followed up with three points as the home side established a 1-6 to 0-4 lead by the 21st minute.
It was at that point, however, that Clare clicked into gear. A goal by full-forward Colin Ryan, after he was skilfully picked out by Fergal Lynch, was the spark as the Banner landed eight points in-a-row, with corner-forwards Conor McGrath and Cathal McInerney doing most of the damage.
Dowling managed a brace before half-time for Limerick, leaving them just four behind (1-12 to 1-8), but another good run by Clare on the restart yielded five points.
With Nickey O’Connell and John Conlan prominent, Limerick began to fall off the pace. And when McGrath goaled again for Clare in the 57th minute (brilliantly picked out by Seanie Collins) to make it 2-19 to 1-10, it was game over.
Fitzgerald admitted: “When we went down five points it wasn’t looking great but I had a feeling we just hadn’t got into gear. We gave up a soft goal at the start and we know why that happened and it was something that we had talked about for a few weeks coming into this and that will stand us in good stead. We recovered very well afterwards and they stuck to their stuff.”
To say that Clare were impressive is to understate things. Once they got into their rhythm they were superb. Their touch and control was a level above Limerick’s, their teamwork and combination repeatedly tore the home team asunder, but most eye-catching of all was their hurling intelligence, their heads-up play.
Even this early in the season it has thrown down a marker, not just for the other teams in this division but even for those in the top six.
Certainly Limerick manager John Allen believes his own side have catching-up to do. “After 15 minutes it looked like we were going to dominate the game, but they started winning at midfield, started winning in the half-back line, and they overran us from then on. We came back into it for a few minutes before half-time but again they overran us in the second half. They had so much play that we were being beaten everywhere. It was like an avalanche at times.”
Given the nature of this year’s league, a five-game sprint, this loss — and the nature of it — leaves Limerick under pressure. Allen though isn’t throwing in any towel: “There’s no doubt we are behind in sharpness, but it’s day one, we have to keep the heads up, focus on the next game. This is over, if we can win the next four games we can make it to the final of this but on that performance we have a lot of work to do.”
Clare have their own work to do, but if the redoubtable Davy Fitzgerald has them playing like this after only a few weeks of combined hurling training — the team points they scored, the way they sliced open the Limerick defence time after time — what will he have them like when the clock changes and the ground firms up?
There is plenty for the Clare supporters to look forward to but, says the man himself, easy awhile on the expectations. “It’s only the first round of the league and there’s no point the people of Clare getting carried away. All they can expect — and I said this from day one — is a hard-working team. We have things to work on and we will have dips. In the long run the lads won’t be too far away; it’s going to take time but we’re on the right track.”
Scorers for Clare: C McGrath 1-11 (0-9f); C Ryan 1-1; J Conlon 0-3; N O’Connell 0-3; C McInerney 0-2; S Collins 0-2; F Lynch, P Donnellan, 0-1 each.
Scorers for Limerick: S Dowling 0-7 (0-4f); N Moran 1-1; D O’Grady 0-2; C Allis 0-2 (0-1 s/l); K Downes 0-1.
Subs for Clare: E Barrett (Bugler 64); L Markham (Lynch 64); C Galvin (Ryan 69).
Subs for Limerick: P O’Brien (J Ryan inj. 10); K Downes (S O’Brien 35); S Walsh (O’Mahony inj. 35); T Quaid (M Ryan 47); J O’Brien (O’Grady 55).
Referee: J Ryan (Tipperary).