Hurling and camogie

Clare will be right up for Munster SHC Final battle against top dogs Limerick

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

AT the end of January, Clare and Limerick met in the Munster league final. Clare picked a strong team. Limerick arrived in Ennis with a raft of young lads and a side minus 13 players which had annihilated Cork in the 2021 All-Ireland final. And Limerick won at a canter.

Cusack Park was sold out. The venue was heaving at the seams. Ennis was thronged with Limerick people from early that morning. With full restrictions having been lifted only weeks earlier, it was the first sell-out inter-county GAA match since the 2019 All-Ireland football final replay.

With all of the Limerick supporters not having been able to see their all-conquering team in the flesh for almost two years, they were in the mood for a party. Green outnumbered saffron and blue colours all over the ground. And they weren't slow in reminding Clare of who are the top dogs in the game right now.

It was all the harder for Clare supporters to stomach considering the make-up of both sides. Limerick only had four established championship players. Clare used 11 seasoned players during the 70 plus minutes. After having lost to Limerick in the Munster championship in 2019 and 2020 by an aggregate margin of 28 points, Clare supporters looked set to endure constant pain in the future at the hands of the Limerick machine.

Yet it has never been in Clare's nature, or their psyche, to accept any level of superiority from their neighbours. Before Clare launched their crusade in the early to mid 1990s, they had taken a couple of bad beatings from Limerick earlier in that decade, particularly in 1990 when Limerick destroyed them in Cusack Park. When Limerick returned to Ennis in 1993 for a Munster quarter-final, they were raging hot favourites but Clare stood up to them and stared them down. Anthony Daly decked Mike Reale after the players broke from the throw-in and John 'Rooskey' Russell jumped on Reale and wouldn't let him up off the ground. It was a metaphor for that performance; Clare decided that enough was enough. They won by four points.

When Limerick arrived back in Ennis in March this year for a key league game, there was a similar mood in the air. Limerick had lost their opening three games and were desperate for a win. Clare wanted to lay down a marker that enough was enough. The game wasn't pretty. It was an arm wrestle but Clare refused to budge. Before another massive crowd, the match was a draw.

When the sides met again in the Munster round robin three weeks ago, it was a throwback afternoon, a day of days that re-kindled memories of the old Clare-Limerick battles. Cusack Park was rattling like a boiling tin. The atmosphere was incredible. The tone, texture and mood of the whole occasion was faithful to the history of the fixture because neither side would back down or be moved to one side in the maelstrom of such absolute ferocity.

The draw meant that Limerick are still unbeaten in Munster after three years, but the way in which Clare stood up to them was also a firm declaration of their credentials and prospects in this championship. Limerick's status as the best team in the country is still undisputed but, on the evidence of three weeks ago, Clare have assumed that mantle as their closest challengers.

There was always more at stake for Clare because they needed at least a point to be guaranteed of qualification in the top three. But they also let Limerick know that they can't overpower or physically dominate them like they can do to so many other teams in this championship. There were numerous occasions when packs of Limerick players gobbled up Clare players in possession and engulfed them in a vortex of intensity, but Clare were still able to extricate themselves from that vice of savagery. Clare have the power but they also have the pace to take Limerick on.

The match 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.

On Sunday,the two teams do it all over again in Thurles. Limerick are entitled to be favourites. Cian Lynch and Aaron Gillane weren't togged out three weeks ago while Gearóid Hegarty was gone off the field with nearly 10 minutes still to play.

On the other hand, Clare's panel is getting stronger by the week. David Reidy and Shane Meehan have returned from injury and played against Limerick and Waterford. Aidan McCarthy, Mark Rodgers and Patrick O'Connor are also on the way back from injury.

Aside from those returning players, Clare's panel is still far stronger than last year. Shane O'Donnell, Peter Duggan and David Fitzgerald didn't play championship in 2021 but they were Clare's three best players against Waterford two weeks ago; all three either scored or assisted 3-16.

Limerick will still be favourites. They know how Clare set up against them now, especially on puck-outs, and Limerick will surely come with some plan to get around those roadblocks Clare erected three weeks ago.

Clare will still meet them head on. Clare are desperate to end a 24-year wait for a Munster title. Clare's 1995 Munster final win against Limerick will always be a watermark moment in the county's history. Incredibly though, that was Clare's only victory against Limerick in a Munster Final.

Clare's sorry record in Munster Finals up to that point was a core narrative in the county's desperate quest to make the breakthrough but, while they suffered most of their pain at the hands of Cork, the hurt was all the more acute again when it was inflicted by their neighbours. It was even harder to stomach when most of those defeats – 1955, 1981, and 1994 in particular – came when expectation was never higher in Clare.

It's high again now, but it's tempered by reality because they are playing the best team in the country. Yet that won't bother Clare. It will only inspire them. It always has.

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Hurling and camogie