Nobody could argue with the result but the final whistle still felt like a cheat, an imposter, anti-climactic. It confirmed a Munster final meeting next month, but the Clare-Limerick relationship is never soothed or pacified by equality or shared bragging rights – the only bottom line has always been about getting one over the other crowd.
Cusack Park had rattled like a boiling tin from the moment the teams entered the field so Colm Lyons' outstretched arms was like turning off the gas. The tin cooled and was suddenly simmering but a draw still didn’t quench the fire burning deep inside everyone on the pitch and around the ground. Once the heat cooled, everyone basked in the warm afterglow of such epic entertainment.
This was a throwback afternoon, a replica of the old halcyon days that the round robin format was designed to rekindle. The tone, texture and mood of the whole occasion was faithful to the history of this fixture because neither side would back down or be moved to one side in the maelstrom of such absolute ferocity.
Limerick are still unbeaten in Munster after three years, but the way in which Clare stood up to them was also a firm declaration of their credentials and prospects in this championship. Limerick’s status as the best team in the country is still undisputed but, on this evidence, Clare have assumed that mantle as their closest challengers.
Limerick will still take a lot from refusing to budge, especially ahead of the Munster final. Cian Lynch and Aaron Gillane weren’t togged out while Gearóid Hegarty was gone off the field with nearly ten minutes still to play.
On the otherhand, Clare’s panel is getting stronger by the week. David Reidy and Shane Meehan returned from injury and came on, while Aidan McCarthy, Mark Rodgers and Patrick O’Connor are on the way back. Meehan, who is still under 20, did really well on his debut in a more withdrawn and foraging role, scoring one point and being fouled for a converted free.
There was always more at stake for Clare but they also let Limerick know that they can’t overpower or physically dominate them like they can do to so many other teams in this championship. There were numerous occasions when Limerick gobbled up Clare players in possession and engulfed them in a vortex of intensity, but Clare were still able to extricate themselves from that vice of savagery.
Clare only turned over the ball 25 times, just four less than Limerick. Clare mined 0-10 from Limerick turnovers, just one point less than what Limerick scored from the same source.
Clare matched their opponents in every area; they had the same amount of shots (33 each) but Clare had a better conversion rate of 73% to Limerick’s 67%. Clare got 0-12 from puckouts, the exact same as Limerick, who accumulated 1-9 from restarts.
Most of Limerick’s possession in the first half stemmed from their control on restarts. They won ten Clare puckouts in that period – some of which were won off the second ball after a short Clare puckout - but they snaffled three in succession inside 90 seconds and translated that possession into three points, which moved them from two behind to one in front in the blink of an eye. Then Clare came out after half-time and won four Limerick puck outs in a shout of defiance that they weren’t going to wilt under the aerial bombardment against the breeze.
This wasn’t a classic in the purest sense but there are many forms of beauty and the honesty, integrity, intensity, relentlessness and absolute manliness all over the field transformed it into a modern epic. Hegarty has a right to feel aggrieved with two yellow cards and another sending off but his possession stats indicate how even a warrior like him, who was tailor-made for this battle, struggled to get his hands on enough clean ball. Yet from just six possessions, Hegarty scored four points and was fouled for a converted free.
His compadre beside him, Tom Morrissey, won five puckouts from 12 possessions. He was fouled for two converted frees but Morrissey only scored one point because he – like all the other Limerick forwards – were harassed and hounded all afternoon from the relentless heat of the Clare defence.
Both teams had covering defenders when they needed them but there were epic individual duels all over the field. From the outset, Limerick sited Kyle Hayes close to goal and Limerick’s first two scores came off long balls into him.
Conor Cleary though, won the next long ball between them while he fetched a long puckout shortly afterwards to let Hayes – and everyone else – know that he was more than well up to challenge. Nickie Quaid boomed the first puckout of the second half down on top of the pair but Cleary stood his ground and wouldn’t let Hayes get his hand anywhere near the ball before John Conlon hoovered up the break.
Seamus Flanagan is still trying to find his groove after only returning from injury but he was never the profitable out-ball option Limerick needed him to be alongside Hayes. His marker, Rory Hayes was outstanding and Flanagan was limited to just five possessions and one point.
It was that kind of afternoon where clean possession was absolutely precious but Tony Kelly rose above all those challenges with another incredible individual display; from 14 possessions, Kelly scored five points from play, was fouled for two converted frees and had an assist.
Kelly struck three wides, one of which he’d normally nail in his sleep, especially when compared with some of the scores he did convert. But Kelly also showed his selflessness on three occasions when he eschewed the shot to try and work a goal or engineer a point from a more realistic target. His freetaking was also immense; in the 25th minute, Kelly torpedoed a free over the bar close to the sideline inside his own ’45 that nearly ended up in the old Friary.
Kelly led the charge but Clare just refused to yield all afternoon. Just before half-time, David Reidy went over to receive instructions from Paul Kinnerk and Conlon wrapped his arms around Reidy not just to eavesdrop but to openly announce – as he smiled to his former coach - that Limerick weren’t going to squeeze anything past them.
It was a metaphor for such an absorbing and intriguing contest. A day of days.