Christy O'Connor: Clare-Limerick a throwback to hurling's old-school values
SHORTLY before the final whistle blew in the Gaelic Grounds for the Clare-Limerick round robin game in late April, the public address announcer asked supporters not to come on to the pitch after the match.
The request at that stage didn’t even register with a crowd gripped in suspense and spell-binding drama and tension but, even if it had, trying to hold back the supporters of whichever team won would have been a futile exercise.
The emotion was too loaded. There had to be a release.
Minutes after that final whistle, the pitch was covered in saffron and blue colours, speckled with shades of green.
For all the compelling drama and intrigue of the round robin since its introduction, the format is still not really designed to feel like it did after that game, especially so early in the season.
It was only round 2. The championship was still only warming up. Nobody was knocked out. Security and safety was still in a fragile state for both teams but it was another throwback match, so intense, guttural, raw and enthralling that it evoked all the old memories of what straight knockout championship felt like.
After losing to Tipperary six days earlier, Clare played like their lives were on the line, but the match was absolutely faithful to the history and tradition of this fixture, echoing loud into the past.
There was always the sense too - especially after drawing with Limerick twice over 70 minutes last summer – that if any team was to finally beat Limerick in a championship match for the first time since August 2019 that it would be Clare.
It took everything Clare had, and more. Limerick have become experts at winning tight games, especially anytime they have been under pressure late on. But when the sides were level with four minutes remaining and the tension was becoming almost unbearable, Clare looked Limerick straight into the eye and stared them down.
Clare’s history and culture means they have never been caught up by a fear of Limerick that has tranquilised other teams but they are also the one team who have consistently matched Limerick in the physical stakes. The intensity and ferocity throughout was off the charts that evening, just as it always has been when these sides have met over the last two years.
In the four year history of the round robin championship (2018, 2019, 2022 and 2023), Clare and Limerick have been involved in five of the six best matches, with three of those contests taking place against each other; in 2022 (twice) and earlier in this championship.
There have been many brilliant matches over those four years but the fact that three of the best of those games have taken place between the same two teams over the past 12 and a half months – and with another potential classic on the way now on Sunday – underlines just how electric this rivalry has now become between these two groups.
They produced two classics last summer in the space of just three weeks. When they drew in Ennis in mid-May, Limerick needed to find something from deep in the depths of their souls to preserve their four-year unbeaten record in the province.
There was always more at stake for Clare but they also let Limerick know – which they showed again in the subsequent Munster final, and in the round robin match in April - that they can’t overpower or physically dominate Clare like they can other teams.
That meeting wasn’t a classic in the purest sense but there are many forms of beauty and the honesty, integrity, intensity, relentlessness and absolute manliness all over the field transformed it into a modern epic.
And yet, that was only an appetiser to the Munster final last June, which, along with the 2004 Munster final, would rank alongside it as the greatest in hurling history.
The numbers that afternoon showed a standard and level that hurling had never witnessed before. In the first 15 minutes alone, players only had possession of the sliotar in open play for a miserly total of just one minute and 29 seconds.
And on it went, the game defined by relentless tackling, brilliance and intensity. It was physicality unlike anything ever seen before in hurling. In the 22 plus minutes of extra-time, players were in possession for a paltry total of just two minutes and 23 seconds.
Modern players never have any time on the ball anymore but that Munster final demanded a new standard of execution. Seamus Flanagan is an obvious starting point. He was only in possession for a total of 29 seconds, scoring 0-8 from play in that time. The total amount of time Flanagan was on the ball during his eight converted points was just 12.1 seconds.
Tony Kelly, who ran Flanagan close for man-of-the-match, scored 0-7 from play from 14 possessions. Kelly only had the ball in his hand for 26 seconds in total, scoring six of those seven points within a timeframe of just ten seconds. Outlandish stuff.
Their last three meetings have underlined how Clare-Limerick games have redefined that difficulty in trying to secure clean possession at the high end of the scale.
Hurling is still heavily defined by systematically produced possession but Clare-Limerick games have been such a throwback because of a return to old-school values. Clare set that agenda last summer in how they physically stood up to Limerick in a way others have tried to avoid. They did the same in April when Clare again went after Limerick man-for-man.
Nobody has got closer to Limerick than Clare but Clare have also been breaking new ground in this historic and storied relationship. When they beat Limerick in April, it was Clare’s first time taking down their neighbours and arch rivals in Limerick city since 1889.
Can you imagine the satisfaction for Clare now if they could beat Limerick in Limerick to win a first Munster title in 25 years? How driven are Limerick to make sure that doesn’t happen in their backyard?
On Sunday, Clare and Limerick look set to write another glorious and eternal chapter in this modern classic.