Relief, of course, was the overriding emotion having successfully staved off their Limerick rivals to set up a final showdown with reigning champions UL at 3pm this afternoon.
Said relief, though, was soured by an undercurrent of frustration for this Fitzgibbon Cup semi-final victory was far more troublesome than it need have been.
Mary I’s four-man backroom team, which includes past and present Limerick hurlers Eamonn Cregan and Gavin O’Mahony, were strung out across the sideline during the three minutes of injury time played by referee Diarmuid Kirwan, hands firmly planted on heads as delivery after delivery was rained into the Mary I square by LIT’s Cathal Barrett and Diarmuid Byrnes.
On 62 minutes and needing a goal to keep their title ambitions alive, LIT full-forward David Reidy gathered possession in front of the main stand and took flight down the left wing. In sailed the sliotar on top of ‘keeper Maidhc Ó Conghaile, but having ghosted in behind the cover, LIT wing-back Willie Ryan leapt into the air in a bid to become the match-winner. More hands on heads.
Ryan failed to make connection,Ó Conghaile kept his composure and the Limerick teacher-training college survived.
“I don’t ever want to go through that again,” said winning manager Eamonn Cregan at the finish.
“At half-time, we should have been at least 10 points up and we weren’t. We missed a lot, we should have scored a lot more than we did and we made it very hard on ourselves.
“We are in the final despite the fact that we played badly.” Ahead by 0-6 to 0-3 at half-time and having stretched their advantage out to 0-10 to 0-6 by the 48th minute, Mary I had one foot in the decider turning the bend for home. And this, to echo Cregan’s comments, without ever having shifted beyond third gear.
Midfielders Colm Galvin and Darragh O’Donovan cut a most industrious pair in the opening period and also contributed half of their 0-6 total come the interval. But once their influence started to wane – O’Donovan was substituted entering the final quarter, while Galvin simply ran himself into the ground, LIT gained a foothold at midfield and it wasn’t long before the supply of ball into Mary I dangermen Cian Lynch and Declan Hannon completely dried up.
A Diarmuid Byrnes ’65 on 54 minutes was followed by a Peter Duggan free and LIT had the gap back to the minimum 20 seconds shy of the hour mark as Byrnes clipped over his first from play and his fourth in total.
It was a mixed afternoon for Limerick’s All-Ireland U21 winning captain who missed three frees inside the opening quarter and his awkward collision with sub Seamus Kennedy two minutes into time added on allowed Hannon – the provider of three placed ball efforts before LIT assumed control – strike his fifth of the tie to return Mary I to the final for the first time since 2013.
For the vanquished, their inability to penetrate a defence superbly marshalled by Richie English – Davy Fitzgerald’s charges went scoreless for 22 minutes of the first-half and managed only four scores from open play throughout – ultimately proved their downfall.
“It is very good to be back in the final. For a small college like ourselves, it is great,” continued Cregan. “They tried very hard in the second-half. They stuck at it and we got the scores in the end. That is all that matters.”
D Hannon (0-5, 0-4 frees); D O’Donovan (0-2, 0-1 free); C Galvin, R Maher, N O’Meara, D Reidy (0-1 each).
D Byrnes (0-4, 0-2 ’65, 0-1 free); P Duggan (0-2 frees); A Dempsey, O’Brien, P Killeen (0-1 each).
N Maher (Limerick) for Campion (44 mins), S Gleeson (Clare) for D Dempsey (50), W Connors (Tipperary) for O’Malley (50).
M O Conghaile (Galway); E Quirke (Clare), R English (Limerick), A Ryan (Tipperary); R Maher (Tipperary), T Stapleton (Tipperary), J Meagher (Tipperary); C Galvin (Clare), D O’Donovan (Limerick); S Linnane (Galway), C Lynch (Limerick), D Corry (Clare), D Hannon (Limerick), N O’Meara (Tipperary).
S Kennedy (Tipperary) for O’Donovan (45 mins), T Gallagher (Tipperary) for Reidy (45), S Cahill (Tipperary) for Linnane (50), M O’Neill (Clare) for O’Meara (58).
E Quilligan (Clare); N O’Connor (Clare), K Bennett (Waterford), P Killeen (Galway); W Ryan (Tipperary), J Shanahan (Clare), D Byrnes (Limerick); C Barrett (Tipperary), O O’Brien (Clare); A Dempsey (Limerick), N Maher (Limerick), D Dempsey (Limerick); M O’Malley (Clare), D Reidy (Clare), P Duggan (Clare).
Subs: J Campion (Laois) for Maher (44 mins), S Gleeson (Clare) for D Dempsey (50), W Connors (Tipperary) for O’Malley (50).
D Kirwan (Cork).