A drab Munster encounter in front of a 21,493 crowd sprung to life in the second half when both teams lost the run of themselves — or should that be their shackles — and actually started to play.
So what swung it in Limerick’s favour? Young Adare man John Fitzgibbon, with his 68th minute long-range point, may have been the match-winner but there was a plethora of reasons for this result. That Clare won only one free in the second half to Limerick’s five? Possibly? That just 90 or so seconds of additional time were played when it seemed more should have been allocated? Maybe. That Limerick were slightly the better team? Perhaps.
But the cold, hard fact is that for the fourth time this year, Clare have lost by a single point and yet again they have exited Munster at the first time of asking. And once more their discipline proved their Achilles’ heel, Shane Dowling taking them for 10 frees. What’s more, he missed another three.
Discipline must now be a real concern for Davy Fitzgerald, who has seen four players sent off in Clare’s last three championship games, the latest his co-captain Pat Donnellan, who was issued a straight red card for striking Donal O’Grady with his hurley in a half-time melee.
After both Donegal and Tyrone were handed fines for the row that broke out in Ballybofey last Sunday, it will be interesting to see if Clare and Limerick are similarly reprimanded for what were uglier scenes than those that took place in Ulster.
Limerick showed their fortitude once more but weren’t by any means spectacular. Declan Hannon seemed to sacrifice a lot of his game to warp the shape of the Clare half-back line and was pretty much a bystander. However, it wasn’t until the 41st minute that Limerick went behind in this game and that deficit lasted all of two minutes, Graeme Mulcahy levelling matters, then Tom Condon and another Dowling free putting them two-up.
Another brace of Dowling placed balls and they were three to the good before Dowling’s long ball was misjudged by Patrick Kelly and Domhnall O’Donovan, who had more than his hands full with the exciting Cian Lynch. Their mix-up provided Mulcahy with the chance to pounce and he made no mistake.
One of the positives Fitzgerald will take from the game was the way Clare responded so quickly with points after Limerick had found their range. Aaron Cunningham’s goal was another example of their bouncebackability, the substitute finding the net after Shane O’Donnell had made a nuisance of himself.
“That is disappointing,” reviewed TJ Ryan. “The first goal is always important in championship hurling and when we got it we thought we were in a good position. But look, in the finish when the game was tight and tense they battled hard. And you have to give serious kudos to the boys.”
A point from an otherwise subdued Tony Kelly followed Cunningham’s goal and the difference was cut to two points. Soon after, Limerick themselves were reduced to 14 men when substitute Seanie Tobin had a moment of madness and dug at Pat O’Connor, having only entered the fray seconds before.
The initiative appeared to have switched Clare’s way but starlet Lynch fetched brilliantly and then shortened his grip to avoid hooking in registering a point. Then Dowling added his 10th and final free when referee Colm Lyons noticed a pull-back.
Again it was Cunningham who dragged Clare back into the game in the 64th minute when he smashed a shot past Barry Hennessy having received a ball from Shane Golden. Fitzgerald praised the Wolfe Tones man afterwards: “You see, when a game goes on like that, people get tired and the more it goes on, you introduce fresh legs like that and it makes a difference. And if his confidence is up, Aaron has always that ability in him.
“But in saying that I’m very proud today — I’d three new debutants, thought David Reidy worked. The amount of tackles and blocks... I think we had eight or nine turnovers in the first half. Shane Golden, Gudgie (Gearoid O’Connell), they were thrown into the deep end today and I’m immensely proud of all of them.”
It appeared Fitzgerald had more reason to be prouder when O’Donnell followed Cunningham’s second goal with his first point to restore parity. And yet it was another burgeoning player in the shape of Fitzgibbon who dashed his hopes of a comeback victory.
Pat O’Connor had a late chance but sent his opportunity wide. And so it was that the advantage Limerick had at half-time, 0-9 to 0-8, was retained. The least said about that first half the better. Both teams were frigid on occasions with both defences conceding frees far too easy.
Limerick won’t be all that concerned, though. A room-for-improvement win heading into a third Munster meeting with Tipperary in as many years is something to envy. Just ask Clare.
S Dowling (0-11, 10 frees, 1 65); G Mulcahy (1-1); C Lynch (0-3); P O’Brien, S O’Brien, T Condon, J Fitzgibbon (0-1 each).
C Ryan (0-7, 5 frees); A Cunningham (2-1); J Conlon, T Kelly (0-2 each); S Golden, D Reidy, S O’Donnell (0-1 each).
S Tobin for D O’Grady (55); D Morrissey for S Walsh (63); W McNamara for S Hickey (inj), J Fitzgibbon for J Ryan (both 66); K Downes for P Browne (70+1).
S Tobin (56, straight).
A Cunningham for D Reidy (48); S Morey for D O’Donovan (55); B Duggan for G O’Connell (58); D Honan for S Golden (67); N O’Connell for T Kelly (69, inj).
P Donnellan (h-t, straight). Referee: C Lyons (Cork)