Ennis bounces to the Banner beat

While Clare were sharp, Derek McGrath’s team were blunt. And surprisingly and disappointedly, undisciplined.

To appreciate just how big and novel and outrageously long-awaited this day this was for Cusack Park, the last time Clare played someone other than Kerry in the Munster senior hurling championship here in Ennis, Tony Kelly, the scorer of six splendid points from play yesterday, wasn’t even born.

Instead when a Len Gaynor-coached team upset Limerick this weekend 25 years ago, Kelly was still in his mother’s womb. In Clare’s prior championship outing, Anthony Daly had been told to stick to his traditional music by his Waterford marker and his Clarecastle clubmate Sparrow O’Loughlin had told him he was finished with Clare.

A lot changed with that win over Limerick — Sparrow, having decided not to retire after all, scorched Limerick for 1-5 to set in motion the Clare train that two years later would arrive at the steps of the Hogan Stand — and even more has changed since that win over Limerick.

Daly didn’t just make acquaintance with a missing person in 1995 but made a point of meeting them in the same spot again in 1997. Kelly himself would get his hands on Liam MacCarthy in 2013. Clare, like Ireland, is a different place than it was in 1993 and yet all those years and those three All-Irelands later and it took until yesterday for Cusack Park to hear the Banner roar at a Munster hurling championship game again.

Whatever about the ground, the old town of Ennis deserved this, its various hostelries buzzing and overflowing with punters streaming onto the streets. For towns like Thurles and Clones, even Enniskillen, this is commonplace — a provincial town hosting a provincial championship match in the county’s preferred code. Ennis had been denied that experience and been the poorer for it, but equally the Munster championship had been denied Ennis and had been the poorer for it. 

Yesterday was further vindication for the new-look championship and further reason to wonder and curse why it took so long to come into being.

During the week Seán Óg Ó hAilpín lamented the passing of the do-or-die Munster championship and feared that the new format would dilute the atmosphere and attendances at the games. Ó hAilpín’s memory though may be more selective and faulty than he knows. 

Yesterday there was 13,736 in Cusack Park, precisely 1,000 more than was there back in 1993 when, as Seán Óg put it, “you had to put all your eggs in one basket for one game”. 

It was also larger than three of the last four Munster championship clashes between the counties in the neutral ground that’s Thurles.

Yesterday the atmosphere at a Munster Championship game was enhanced, not diminished, by the new format by virtue of its venue, an 80% packed Cusack Park a lot livelier than a quarter-full Semple Stadium.

The ground itself still leaves quite a bit to be desired.

It wasn’t lost on some Waterford fans that the place has considerably less seating than Walsh Park which has been deemed unfit for purpose this summer.

Earlier this year I wrote about how at last year’s Mayo-Clare football qualifier, I needed to use my iPhone as a flashlamp in the toilet cubicles when assisting my young son in the terrace restrooms. 

Yesterday, when we went to the same toilets again, there was the encouraging sight of two diligent and courteous cleaners waiting patiently to distribute toilet rolls into each of the cubicles, but unfortunately when we entered them ourselves, we were plunged into complete darkness, the Clare County Board not yet having bothered with installing a few lightbulbs, meaning we had to get out the iPhone again.

Hopefully by the Limerick game on June 17…

The match itself was also justification for the new format, and again Kelly epitomised that. In his championship preview for this paper, Tony Browne predicted that the regularity of games would suit an instinctive hurler like Kelly; instead of having to wait five weeks for a second championship game like he had to last summer, this year he would only have to wait seven days. 

Yesterday validated Browne’s point, at the expense of his own countymen; after raiding Cork for 1-2 last Sunday, he scorched Waterford for 0-6 here.

And yet he wasn’t even the game’s standout player. That distinction belonged to John Conlon who along with his fellow partner in a red helmet as well as crime, Peter Duggan, tormented a bedraggled and depleted Déise backline.

If playing a second straight week helped Clare, then not playing last week cost Waterford. You would think this game would have brought them on — but the number of injuries they sustained would make you revise that. 

While Clare were sharp, Derek McGrath’s team were blunt. And surprisingly and disappointedly, undisciplined, and all the more so, because it was encapsulated by Kevin Moran’s brainless red-card charge at Tony Kelly. Of all the Waterford players you’d least expect to lose the head…

But then again it was a rare day. Kelly’s day. Clare’s day. And Ennis’s. Thankfully we won’t have to wait until 2043 for something like it again.


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