CALL ME the breeze. With apologies to Patrick McCabe for borrowing the title of one of his novels, yesterday in Thurles was no place for the faint-hearted. Or the faintly insulated, at least.
Clare and Limerick both had to contend with a stiff wind that turned Semple Stadium into the biggest wind tunnel in western Europe, and the 28,603 in attendance could tell the direction of the breeze, howling down towards the Town End. You didn’t need to watch the flags so much as the flagpoles, which looked to be bending slightly towards Liberty Square.
Not that that will bother Clare. Their four goals were enough to suck the life out of Limerick and see them through to a Munster final decider against Tipperary on July 13.
“We lost the toss,” said Clare manager Mike McNamara afterwards. “Which was a disadvantage, as we would certainly have played into the wind and maybe held Limerick for 20 minutes, but you could end up thinking the wind would win it for you, which isn’t the case.”
The extent to which the wind was a character was obvious from Limerick goalkeeper Brian Murray’s first puck-out, which hung in the air and then dropped on his own 65 like a stone. Clare didn’t always use the elements to best advantage either; Philip Brennan tried some short puck-outs in the first half when he had plenty of muscle to aim at up the field in Tony Carmody and Diarmuid McMahon.
In fact, neither side seemed sure of their tactics, given the gale blowing all round them; Limerick withdrew Donncha Sheehan to midfield but as the half wore on, the Clare defence benefited from having a spare man. On the other hand Clare had a gale behind them but didn’t seem inclined to bomb the ball in on top of their full-forward line.
The advantage of the modh direach was clear on 15 minutes, when Clare’s Pat Vaughan had time and space to deliver a long ball upfield; Brian Murray can point to the sun, and to the distracting joust of Mark O’Flaherty and Damien Reale in front of him, but he won’t enjoy seeing the video later this week. It was a soft goal, and O’Flaherty’s two points afterwards gave Clare a comfortable lead.
The men in front of Murray won’t enjoy re-runs of the 27th minute: three Limerick defenders dithered in front of the goal only for Jonathan Clancy to stride between them and finish neatly with a clean ground stroke. Clare had seven points to spare at the break, but would it be enough?
McNamara and his management team played down the disadvantage.
“We said to them at half-time that the wind wasn’t as big a factor as we’d have expected,” said McNamara. “You’d expect a storm of wind to bring huge benefits, but the wind never won a game for anybody else. Limerick know that now.”
Still, it was noticeable that Brian Murray started launching the puck-outs down on the Clare 21-metre line; that paid off early in the second-half when Ollie Moran read the bounce of one long delivery to goal past Brennan. Limerick added three points to cut Clare’s lead to two points.
Then came the three minutes which had Richie Bennis pursing his lips testily afterwards. Two Limerick defenders collided going for the ball and left Tony Carmody one-on-one with Brian Murray; the Clareman’s unselfish pass across goal gave Barry Nugent a tap-in.
Soon afterwards Colin Lynch’s delivery was fielded easily by Diarmuid McMahon, who gave Murray no chance from close range.
And that was the ball game. Limerick tried hard to the end, but they were never going to catch Clare after that.
A frustrated Richie Bennis acknowledged the influence of the wind after the game, but he was also frank about the damage Limerick inflicted on themselves.
“It was [an influence],” said the Limerick boss. “It becomes a big factor. I’d prefer rain and wind.
“We held them fairly well in the first-half, but they got two goals — I’d say against the run of play — and they also got two goals in the second-half, which I also thought were against the run of play. Very sloppy goals, the two in the second-half particularly — we were caught ball-watching big time.
“But that’s the way it goes, they deserved their victory and I wish them well in the Munster final.”
Limerick have some work to do — the consensus was that they needed to uncover a forward last spring, but their defence was porous yesterday, and Brian Geary’s recovery can’t come too quickly.
Clare have other challenges ahead. Mike McNamara showed the passion at the final whistle: “We have pride in hurling and in the jersey, and just because we hit a purple patch doesn’t mean we’re going to go away after it.”
He was also pragmatic: “The reality is that we’ll have to play better than that in the Munster final. We know that and ye know that.”
But Clare are confident, and battle-hardened, and they have powerful forwards who make it hard for defenders — with or without the ball. The caveats following their dismantling of Waterford have been answered. After yesterday you could even say they have the wind in their sails.
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