In attempting to win the county’s first Munster SHC game since 2013, they had heaped expectation upon themselves.
Yesterday ended a run of four straight defeats in the province, which may explain why it came with question and doubt but O’Connor didn’t care.
“We had an inconsistent league by our own admission,” he said.
“But, rightly or wrongly, we put undue pressure on ourselves to perform here today and that bunch of players, they knew they were under pressure to perform and to be fair to them they delivered in spades.”
It won’t care to anyone in Clare’s Caherlohan camp that this wasn’t pretty. They now have five weeks to iron out the crinkles, some of much presented themselves in the form, or lack thereof, of Tony Kelly and a sluggish Podge Collins, who if he wasn’t carry an injury certainly had one when he asked to be called ashore in the 59th minute.
But then neither were really needed as fit-again Conor McGrath sparkled and Shane O’Donnell shined.
The anxiety in striving to reach a first Munster final in nine years may explain the lack of ruthlessness. Less nervous teams might have put Limerick to the sword earlier than they did.
A goal like Kyle Hayes’ in the 70th minute wouldn’t have been mere consolation against sides without the baggage Clare have gathered for so many seasons.
Kelly had a penalty two minutes before that to end the contest but drove his strike wide and after the goal David Reidy had chances to give Clare some more breathing space but contributed to his excessive wide tally.
James McGrath’s final whistle eventually brought sweet relief for Clare although he should have allowed more than two minutes of additional time after nine second-half substitutions and a lengthy break for the penalty after sub Aaron Cunningham was brought down.
Justice was served all the same. Clare had amassed an eight-point advantage in each half and even when Limerick cancelled out the first advantage they were able to dust themselves down and sent over five consecutive points to lead 2-10 to 1-8 at the break.
O’Donnell posted 2-2 in the first-half as he reminded those of his 2013 class but keener observers based on recent seasons would have anticipated another display was like this was in the making.
Playing in a deeper role, he latched on in electric fashion when a John Conlon ball was broken down into his path as Aaron Cunningham and Richie McCarthy climbed to retrieve it.
That fifth-minute score pushed Clare two ahead and the second followed nine minutes later as McCarthy failed in his attempt to lift the ball and Mike Casey was left flat-footed in trying to stop O’Donnell from exploiting the mistake and running towards goal.
“Shane O’Donnell has been in incredible form for the last three weeks,” reported O’Connor.
“We had an A and B game two weeks ago and Shane was just back from injury and he didn’t make the A team and the response that he gave in that game meant he just could not but start. He was incredible and to be fair he’s carried the form from the second half of the Eire Óg game against the (O’Callaghan) Mills right through. He’s been in incredible form.”
O’Donnell coupled that second goal with a point soon after, Colm Galvin and Reidy (free) added onto it and Limerick looked spooked. Their long ball strategy wasn’t working as David McInerney made light of debutant Kyle Hayes.
However, they began to reap rewards when Hayes was reassigned to the half- forward line and three straight scores came courtesy of winning puck-outs. Wind-assisted, they managed their first point from play in the 20th minute via Peter Casey and Cian Lynch added two in a row when first Dan Morrissey fetched a restart and then Hayes claimed a puck-out.
The second score followed a Casey shot that Andrew Fahy did well to keep out.
But Limerick did find the net soon after in the 22nd minute when Shane Dowling neatly hand-passed into Lynch’s path and while his strong solo run ended with a tame shot David Dempsey was alert enough to make the most of the rebound from Fahy’s save. Two further Limerick points ensued and in the space of five minutes they were back on level terms.
Limerick, though, ended up counting the cost of 11 first-half wides when the wind was a factor – it calmed significantly in the second- half – and Clare regained the initiative in the 31st minute with a Conor Cleary point from distance, the first of five on the trot.
John Kiely’s side, like they did in the first half, began the brighter and cut the gap to three points four minutes in and still trailed by three up to the 50th minute as Dowling punished more indiscipline.
Kelly had a gilt-edged goal chance snuffed out by a Seán Finn hook but seconds later the sliotar was resting again in Nickie Quaid’s goal after a Galvin ball was allowed to bounce by Finn and the goalkeeper and an unmarked McGrath stole in to tap it to the net.
Three of the next four points were Clare’s and they jumped eight ahead once more in the 55th minute only for Limerick to hit back with three. Scores from Seadna Morey and substitute Ian Galvin settled them a little but Hayes’ goal made things more awkward than they should have been.
“We’ve a huge amount of work,” acknowledged O’Connor. “We’re definitely a work in progress, the amount of opportunities we created and the amount of possession we dominated and didn’t convert into scores is a challenge for us for sure.”
S. O’Donnell (2-2); C. McGrath (1-3); D. Reidy (0-5, frees); J. Conlon (0-2); C. Galvin, C. Cleary, J. McCarthy, S. Morey, I. Galvin (0-1 each).
S. Dowling (0-7, frees); D. Dempsey, K. Hayes (1-1 each); P. Browne (1 sideline), C. Lynch (0-2 each); P. Casey, B. Nash, P. Ryan (0-1 each).
A. Fahy 7; S. Morey 7, D. McInerney 7, P. O’Connor (c) 7; G. O’Connell 6, C. Cleary 7, D. Fitzgerald 6; C. Galvin 8, D. Reidy 6; T. Kelly 5, S. O’Donnell 8, P. Collins 6; A. Shanagher 5, C. McGrath 8, J. Conlon 7.
J. McCarthy 6 for G. O’Connell (54); I. Galvin 6 for P. Collins (inj, 59); A. Cunningham 6 for A. Shanagher (63); C. Malone 6 for C. McGrath (65); C. McInerney (no rating) for T. Kelly (69).
N. Quaid 6; S. Finn 6, R. McCarthy 6, M. Casey 5; D. Morrissey 6, D. Hannon 7, S. Hickey 7; P. Browne 7, J. Ryan (c) 6; S. Dowling 7, C. Lynch 7, D. Dempsey 6; P. Casey 6, K. Hayes 7, G. Mulcahy 5.
G. O’Mahony for D. Hannon (blood, 25-26); B. Nash 6 for G. Mulcahy (h-t); R. English 6 for M. Casey (41); T. Morrissey 6 for P. Casey (54); A. Gillane 6 for S. Dowling, P. Ryan 7 for J. Ryan (both 58).
J. McGrath (Westmeath).