REIGNING Munster and All-Ireland U21 champions Clare stay on course to retain their titles, but only after a hugely entertaining battle against Limerick in this Munster semi-final at the Gaelic Grounds last evening.
Most of the kudos for Clare’s success will go to their two outstanding inside-forwards Darach Honan (1-3, all from play) and Conor McGrath (0-9, 0-4 from play), and understandably so – the scorers are always the guys to catch the eye, and mightily as their two markers tried all hour (Patrick Begley on Honan, Brian Cleary on McGrath), those two were well-nigh unmarkable last night.
The foundation for this success, however, goes much further back the field, to a superb keeper in Donal Touhy (two brilliant saves) to an inside defensive line that was alert, snappy and decisive in everything they did, and to a half-back line that became a veritable wall as the game progressed.
Midfielder Pat Vaughan switched to the right wing early on with Nicky O’Connell and did well; centre-back Caimin Morey was a rock in the centre, and it was his mighty catch in a crowded Clare parallelogram, all four of Limerick’s 6’4” giants parked in the area for Thomas O’Brien’s last-minute lobbed free, that saw Clare safely home.
Most of all, however, there was Patrick O’Connor from the renowned Tubber club, at left-half-back; whether in the air (where he grabbed several successive Limerick second half puckouts) or on the ground, O’Connor was supreme – a master-class in wing-back play.
With no breeze to speak of, dark clouds overhead but the rain holding off, it was Limerick with the better start, three points on the board courtesy of senior star Thomas O’Brien (0-2) and the flying Seanie Tobin!, before Clare had their first, a pointed free from McGrath in the 11th minute.
It was Limerick again with the next three points, midfielders O’Brien and Paul Browne (another senior) and Tobin again. It was looking like a tame surrender of their championship belts by Clare, but the last ten minutes of the half saw a complete turnaround, and it was the deadly duo, Honan (0-2) and McGrath (0-2), along with substitute corner-forward Eoin Hayes, doing all the scoring, leaving it tied at the break, 0-6 each.
Where the first half went first one way for 20 minutes, then the other for ten, the second half was blow for blow, the teams swapping points six times up to the 53rd minute, at which stage it was still tied, 0-12 each. A superb point from Browne in the 55th minute edged Limerick ahead, much to the delight of their huge following, and then, ironically and unfortunately, given how well both sides were defending, the game’s first major, and it was an own goal, Clare corner-back James Gunning making accidental contact with the ball (though under fierce pressure from James O’Brien) and booting to the net.
That could have signalled disaster for Clare, instead it inspired, and within the minute, after a great cross from John Conlan, Honan had the ball buried at the other end.
One point lead restored, 1-13 to 1-12, from there Clare drove on, points from Honan and McGrath closing it out. Great game, pity there had to be a loser, but no argument about the winner.
Scorers for Clare: C McGrath, 0-9 (5f); D Honan 1-3; P Vaughan, E Hayes, N O’Connell (65), 0-1 each.
Scorers for Limerick: T O’Brien, 0-5 (1f, 2‘65s); P Browne, 0-2; S Tobin, 0-2; D Hannon, M Kiely, K Owens (0-1 each); D Nash (Clare, own goal).
CLARE: D Touhy; D Nash, C Chaplin, J Gunning; N O’Connell, C Morey, P O’Connor; S Golden, P Vaughan; S Collins, J Conlan (capt), K Heagney; F Kennedy, D Honan, C McGrath.
Subs: E Hayes for Kennedy (inj 6); K Moynihan for Heagney (46).
LIMERICK: B Hennessey: B Cleary, P Begley, C Hayes: P O’Brien, P O’Loughlin (capt), N Quaid; T O’Brien, P Browne; J O’Brien, C Madden, D Hannon; M Kiely, S Tobin, G Mulcahy.
Subs: K Owens for Madden (30); S Madden for Kiely (54). Blood sub: J Riordan for Cleary (58/59).
Referee: C McAllister (Cork).
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved