Adjoining counties that have built up a rivalry over decades of fraught meetings.
The 1990s were probably the peak years. A decade in which they shared five Munster titles (Clare with three; 1995, ’97 and ’98, Limerick with two; ’94 and ’96). A decade also in which Kilmallock’s own Mike Houlihan was right at the centre of all the action, a powerhouse in midfield.
As they get ready for yet another championship meeting, Houlihan took time to reflect on those years, beginning with ’94 to ’96, three years in which the sides met in the Munster championship.
“It was typical Munster championship rivalry, that’s what it was,” he said.
“We beat them well in the final of 1994 [0-25 to 2-10] but they got the better of us in ’95. We weren’t ready for them, a few problems beforehand, but they were certainly ready for us.
“[Ger] Loughnane was the man who changed things. He made it very physical, an all-hands-on-deck kind of approach, while we were trying to play our usual game. Then of course everyone talks about ’96, us beating them in the first round.”
That was the day of Ciarán Carey’s magnificent solo winning point, a sweltering hot June day in which Clare, as All-Ireland champions, were bidding to put their stamp on Munster hurling and on their near neighbours particularly. Limerick had seen an All-Ireland title torn from their grasp by Offaly in ’94, a late surge of scores denying them when they had Liam MacCarthy all but on train home to Limerick. They figured they simply hadn’t been ready for Clare in ’95 and were caught out.
1996 would be the decider and, as it happened, was to fall Limerick’s way.
So this means Limerick were actually a better side than that famed Clare outfit? Not so fast, says Mike.
“On head-to-heads I think we had it over them. Even in the league we were getting the better of them.
“I remember a league game in ’97, over 30,000 at it, and we beat them, went on to win the title that year. People were coming back from England even for the league games. That’s how big the rivalry was.
“The big difference between us though, they went on to win two All-Irelands, we didn’t, so they have the edge there, definitely.”
And, of course, there’s the rub. Clare did the business in Munster but went to cap it with an All-Ireland title, which they did again in ’97. Limerick? In ’96 they went on to win another Munster title but as in ’94 would again be denied in the All-Ireland final, another day of despair, pipped by 14-man Wexford.
Still, says Mike, great days for the supporters of both counties.
“You had big names on both sides. Young fellas had their heroes going to those games. Lohan, McMahon, Daly, Jamsie for Clare, Davy Clarke, Ciarán Carey, Gary Kirby for us. And of course those games were straight knockout, which made them more exciting again.”
“Unlike the Munster championship nowadays, when you went to play one of those games you weren’t sure you were still going to be in the championship when you were coming home.”
Well, this isn’t Munster championship but it does have that old Munster championship feel to it. So how does Mike think this one is going to go?
“Like in ’95 Clare will be highly motivated, driven on by Davy Fitz. That’s how Davy trains teams. He drives them hard and that probably goes back to what was done to him under Ger Loughnane [Davy was the Clare keeper that day, goaled a 20m free to set them on their way].
“They have a few very good young players brought in from the minor and U21s, mixed in with a few of the established players..
“But Limerick put up 8-26 against Antrim. If Kilkenny had done that people would have been writing it up but because it was Limerick people are saying, ‘oh, Antrim were very bad’. That told me we have good forwards. I think they’re quite capable of getting a win here, even if not by much.”