All-Ireland finalists last year, and deservedly so despite the critics’ carping, I have great respect for the way this team is prepared mentally and psychologically by the dynamic duo of Richie Bennis and Gary Kirby, and prepared physically by the ultra-professional Dave ‘D’Arcy’ Moriarty.
But while Limerick are the last team in the country to go into provincial championship action (Galway are absolved, as there’s no Connacht championship), Clare already have one round under their belts, and a good round it was. Their destruction of Waterford wasn’t the freak that a lot of commentators seem to feel it was.
Waterford’s weaknesses aside (and they were shorn of big guns Ken McGrath, Eoin Kelly, Eoin Murphy and Paul Flynn), Clare looked very impressive in the Gaelic Grounds three weeks ago.
Apart from a fragility in the corners, explained afterwards by the injury carried into the game by debutant Darragh Clancy, the injury suffered during the game by Ger O’Grady, the defence looked solid, the half-back line of Brendan Bugler, Conor Plunkett and another newcomer, Pat Donnellan, especially so, with Frank Lohan also looking good at full-back.
They conceded 23 points, but then the on-fire John Mullane had eight of those on his own, while free-taker Dave Bennett accounted for most of the rest with ten points, nine from placed balls.
In midfield, Colin Lynch and Brian O’Connell were the dominant pair: two strong runners, able to take a score, who complemented each other very well. Up front was where Clare really caught the eye though. Diarmuid McMahon put in a virtuoso display and was magnificent on the 40, while Jonathan Clancy was all-action, an extra midfielder/half-back. Gillie was back to his best on the edge of the square with 1-2 from play, Mark Flaherty marked his championship debut with a perfect 1-7 from eight shots, while the returning Tonys, Griffin and Carmody, shot seven points between them. Just as important was that when Waterford had the ball, they were gang-tackled by the Clare forwards, making life almost impossible. With all that, then, you now have to give Clare a real chance.
What of Limerick? They haven’t played together as a unit since last year’s All-Ireland final loss to Kilkenny, are without two big players for this one in injured centre-back Brian Geary and retired full-forward Brian Begley. Throw in the fact that the one player they unearthed in a very average league campaign, Wayne McNamara, is also injured, and it looks like trouble ahead. But I like this team, I like the heart, the soul – they will not be found wanting. So, for the first time since I’ve been calling games in these pages, I’m going to sit this one out.