Christy O'Connor: Clare sick of losing classic matches to Limerick

Aaron Gillane
Aaron Gillane celebrates scoring Limerick’s third goal during their Munster SHC win over Clare in Ennis (Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE/SPORTSFILE)

On the day that Clare hosted Limerick in their opening round robin match in April, Ennis was thronged from early that morning. A 2pm throw-in did enhance the hype and anticipation, especially on such a glorious day when a seemingly endless winter finally appeared to have called a halt to the rain.

It was still only spring but everything about the day looked and felt like one of those eternal summer Sundays, especially when everybody in both counties had been salivating at the prospect of a rematch since the Munster final 10 and a half months earlier.

Clare had hoped that such a meeting would happen in an All-Ireland final but that dream ended at the hands of Kilkenny for a second year in succession last July. When the draw pitched Clare and Limerick together for the opening match of this Munster championship, the most pressing issue for supporters was securing a ticket to see it.

In mid-April, Clare GAA undertook a pitch inspection to determine if the capacity of 18,000 could be increased for the match. When it was, which resulted in an increased capacity of over 2,000 spectators, at least clubs had more loaves and fishes to hand out for a feast that everybody wanted to be at.

Clare and Limerick tend to produce titanic battles when they meet. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Clare and Limerick tend to produce titanic battles when they meet. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

A Munster final, especially a provincial decider between Clare and Limerick in Limerick, is a whole different level of attraction, but tickets were like gold dust ahead of that game last year. And the capacity of the Gaelic Grounds that day was close to 44,000, more than double what packed into Cusack Park in April.

It has been another mad scramble for tickets this time around. Clare-Limerick matches have always been seismic events but they’ve become absolute box-office attractions over the last three years considering Limerick’s all-conquering dominance, and Clare’s ability to go closer than any other team to halting that crusade.

In the storied, but short, history of the provincial round robin championship, that match seven weeks ago was the biggest, most hyped and eagerly anticipated first round game ever played in the competition. By a distance. And now, a third Munster final meeting in-a-row (which is the first time that has happened between the counties) has added to the huge status and carnivalesque vibes around this fixture.

Limerick’s increasing allure and record-breaking crusade has added to the hype but the appeal is all the greater again given the suspense and anticipated unbearable tension of another Munster final between the pair. It has added fuel to the fire, but Clare have been so heavily burnt in that furnace that the biggest question they face now is can they finally turn the blowtorch on their greatest rivals?

The defeat in April left some big scars because of how Clare lost the match, being nine points up entering the last quarter before losing by five. It’s not as if Limerick haven’t done that before. In last July’s All-Ireland final, they were trailing by five points early in the second half before outscoring Kilkenny 0-19 to 0-4.

Limerick looked far more off the pace against Clare in April, but they went into overdrive when they needed to. It was a familiar sight but it was still all the more shocking for Clare when it happened in their backyard in a game Clare appeared to be in complete control of late on.

On the other hand, was it that cut and dried? Limerick had 19 shots in the first half but only converted eight. Clare were more economical but two lingering questions were always hanging in the air. What if Limerick found their range? What if they scored a goal? Once they did both, everything changed, as everything does in those circumstances.

Ryan Taylor of Clare is tackled by William O'Donogue of Limerick during the Munster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Round 4 match at Cusack Park in Ennis. <br />Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Ryan Taylor of Clare is tackled by William O'Donogue of Limerick during the Munster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Round 4 match at Cusack Park in Ennis.
Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Momentum can be a weapon but momentum in Limerick’s hands is like a nuclear warhead because of the destruction they can wreak in that mood and flow. And once they got within touching distance of Clare, they know that they are masters at winning tight games.

Clare were sickened to lose in that manner, but there were warning signs there for more than just Limerick’s profligacy before they turned the screw. Clare have always gone after Limerick man-for-man but when Limerick strategically brought four of their forwards up the field in the second half, Clare’s defensive shape and structure was too open.

Clare were able to trust Conor Cleary and Adam Hogan on a two-on-two inside but there was far too much space for Limerick’s runners to exploit outside them. Clare’s half-back line were forced to scramble back too often into that space as opposed to facing the ball.

The most galling aspect of that defeat was that it was another game Clare should have won against Limerick – but didn’t. When Clare had eight more shots against them in last year’s Munster final, it was the first time Limerick had such a shooting deficit against a top team since Clare dismantled them in the 2018 round robin.

Being able to override those blips has just reaffirmed Limerick’s greatness. But it has also showcased Clare’s struggles to make up those tiny fractions that are turning into huge chasms of disappointment and devastation.

Can Clare make up that ground now? Despite Limerick’s all-conquering dominance, it has still never been in Clare’s nature, or their psyche, to accept any level of superiority from their neighbours. But it is becoming all the more painful again when Clare can’t beat Limerick when it matters most.

This has been an incredible rivalry but Clare need to even up the numbers to fully enhance their status in the relationship. In Munster’s last great rivalry, Cork-Waterford in the 2000s, those sides met in nine massive matches in six seasons between 2002-’07. The results-split was even, with both sides sharing four wins and one draw, whereas Limerick are 3-1 ahead with one draw from their last five meetings with Clare.

Another win now would really skew the dynamic of the rivalry in comparative terms of success, especially when a trophy is on the line again. The 2022 Munster final was probably the greatest ever. Last year’s final was another epic that should have went to extra-time again. But it was another game Limerick won against Clare by one score.

Sunday promises to be another classic but Clare are sick of losing classics. They need to win. They have to win. Losing a third Munster final in-a-row is not an option. Especially to Limerick.