RARELY does league fare take centre stage in the imagination of hurling folk, especially not outside the top tier, but such was the interest in this crucial Allianz Hurling League Division Two final that Ennis on Saturday evening bore all the hallmarks of a championship encounter.
The crowd was so large that the throw-in was put back five minutes. There were shenanigans before the throw-in when both teams took up the same position behind the pipe band for the parade, and neither side would then give in and marched around almost arm-in-arm. And at throw-in time the Limerick attack grouped on the 40 in an effort to sow confusion in the Clare defence, before then taking up their allotted positions (lining up as per the programme).
Heavens, even the weather was summer-like, blue skies and warm sunshine; and the intensity – from first whistle to last, was intense with no quarter asked or given as the hits went in. This was good old-fashioned hurling facilitated by the sympathetic refereeing of James McGrath from Westmeath.
Backed by the strong breeze Clare began well, led 0-2 to no score after four minutes and though corner-forward Seán Tobin, with an intelligent batted goal, played Limerick into an undeserved lead in the 6th minute, the hosts regained control and led by two points in the 31st minute (0-8 to 1-3) with the towering Fergal Lynch landing two fine scores.
The five minutes before the break, however, were crucial for Limerick, a period in which they doubled their scores.
It started with a fortuitous goal, a half-hit shot for a point from 65m by Limerick centre-back Seamus Hickey that wasn’t dealt with by Clare keeper Donal Touhy and ended in the net. Points from full-forward Kevin Downes, Richie McCarthy and midfielder Donal O’Grady had Limerick 2-6 to 0-8 ahead at the break with wind advantage to come in the second half.
However it was Clare who started the second period with a bang, a magnificent goal from sub Darach Honan starting them off, followed by a point from wing-forward John Conlan.
Limerick fought back, but as the half progressed, and even into the wind, it was Clare on top, and a second goal, well finished by corner-forward Conor McGrath, shot them into a three-point lead in the 51st minute, (2-11 to 2-8).
A further Honan point had Clare four points in front in the 54th minute, but then came the start of the Limerick comeback. It began with a Declan Hannon goal after a huge puckout from the superb keeper Nicky Quaid. Clare came back from that, yet another Conlan point putting them two points ahead again, but when Kevin Downes rounded Conor Cooney (what a great battle these two had!) for an incredible goal from the narrowest of angles in the 67th minute, Limerick were back in control, and from there to the finish they never let up.
“Downes got a great goal,” said Limerick boss Donal O’Grady, “I don’t know how he squeezed it in there and straight away after that came the big point. In a tight game, two big scores one after the other breaks the heart of the opposition. Once we got that goal and point it put fierce pressure on Clare, they had to try things up front that they wouldn’t normally try and that played into the hands of our defence. We dominated from then on.”
O’Grady also had time for a consoling word for the losers: “I feel a bit for Clare, and now they will spend their third year in Division Two but when you sit back to look at this match on the DVD there was nothing between the teams — if we were to meet again in a few days it could turn out differently. They had chances, but maybe the pressure of playing at home, maybe the pressure of looking into the chasm of Division Two again got them to tense up a bit. We’re pleased we won, from now on everything is a bonus.”
Scorers for Limerick: K Downes 1-2; S Tobin 1-1; D Hannon 1-1; R McCarthy 0-4 (0-3f); S Hickey 1-0; D O’Grady 0-2; P Browne, N Moran, 0-1 each.
Scorers for Clare: J Conlan 0-4; D Honan 1-1; C McGrath 1-0; N O’Connell 0-3 (0-2 65s); F Lynch 0-2; C Ryan 0-2 (0-2f); L Markham 0-1.
Subs for Limerick: N Moran for S Tobin (48); P Tobin for McCarthy (56); D Moloney for Breen (56).
Subs for Clare: D Honan for McMahon (19); C Morey for Ryan (59).
Referee: J McGrath (Westmeath).
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