Clare and Limerick vie for Shannonside supremacy

The Banner and the Treaty hope to kickstart new eras with victory over local rivals

Clare’s Aaron Shanagher and Tom Condon of Limerick in action during Clare’s win last year.  Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

Clare’s Aaron Shanagher and Tom Condon of Limerick in action during Clare’s win last year. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

 

When the draw was made for this weekend’s GAA Munster semi-final, pitching Clare against Limerick, interest levels were conditional given that both counties had appointed new management teams and the other half of the draw promised a summit between All-Ireland champions Tipperary and beaten semi-finalists Waterford.

Two lacklustre league campaigns didn’t waive that conditionality but a fortnight ago, suddenly the world became a different place with Cork’s defeat of Tipperary. If there’s a new era in the offing, a Clare-Limerick contest may have a familiar ring.

The Shannonside rivalry is remarkable in one respect: its reluctance to give itself over to one county or the other. Clare and Limerick have met 12 times in the past 26 championships. The tally is six each and those wins have scrupulously alternated since 1991.

The feeling this year is that the sequence may be about to be broken as Clare confidence is rising that the county’s stunning All-Ireland success from four seasons ago might finally get a follow-up worthy of the name.

Injuries have cleared and recent challenge matches, inasmuch as they are admissible evidence, have gone well.

New managers

Optimism in Clare is partly based on the accession to management of the duo Gerry O’Connor and Donal Moloney, who had charge of the under-21 three-in-a-row from 2012-14, and the relaxing of Davy Fitzgerald’s at times claustrophobically structured game plan.

Meetings between the counties have tended to cluster at times when one or the other is prospering. Back in 2013 Limerick won a first Munster title in 17 years and if the sparkle dimmed a bit when Clare comprehensively beat them in the All-Ireland semi-final en route to that year’s Liam MacCarthy, they were back the following year putting eventual champions Kilkenny to the pin of their collar in a monsoon.

Even in developmental terms they have marked each other. Clare won four under-21 All-Irelands in six years, 2009-14, and a year later Limerick added one of their own.

In the 1990s they alternated Munster titles and All-Ireland appearances. To Limerick’s grief theirs were unavailing whereas Clare’s were momentously successful.

There has also been a curious cross-pollination between the counties. Two Limerick men had a major influence on Clare’s 2013 All-Ireland: strength and conditioning coach Joe O’Connor and trainer Paul Kinnerk, both now back in their own county.

Going in the other direction at club level was Seán Stack, a member of the great Clare team of the 1970s, in the celebrated half-back line with Ger Loughnane and Seán Hehir. Stack led Limerick’s Na Piarsaigh to their first Munster title in 2011 and laid the groundwork for the club’s All-Ireland success – Limerick’s first – in 2016.

A year previously that distinction nearly went to Ger “Sparrow” O’Loughlin, Clare manager earlier this decade, and twice an All-Ireland medallist with Loughnane’s team in 1995 and 1997. Having managed Adare to three-in-a-row Limerick titles in 2007-09, O’Loughlin took Kilmallock to a county and provincial title and an appearance against Ballyhale in the All-Ireland final.

Hurlers mingle at school and third-level – both Limerick IT and UL have Clare head coaches in David Fitzgerald and Brian Lohan – and know each other well.

Stack says that the rivalry between the counties can be claustrophobic.

“My opinion is playing Limerick – we’re so neighbourly because we’re right in the middle of the industrial Midwest and Shannon airport has a huge bearing on that – carries so much rivalry that there’s an actual fear of getting beaten by the other. You’ve to live with them for 12 months. It’s the same this year.

“The team that comes out gets a huge boost and the team that doesn’t is on a real downer. It can have a negative effect on performance because you’re watching things and playing with a bit of inhibition. Look at Cork the other day [against Tipperary]: they had nothing to lose and played out of their skin. Now the fear of defeat against Waterford will come into it so we probably won’t have that performance again.

“That’s the way it probably will be at the weekend but it will be an intense battle.”

Ultra-competitiveness O’Loughlin agrees but sees the ultra-competitiveness of recent decades as simply evidence that overall, both counties play to a similar level.

“It’s a good rivalry,” he says. So many Limerick people work in Clare and vice versa that championship fever takes on a life of its own in the week or two before these games.

“There’s very little between the counties and after each championship match if they played each other the following weekend, the result could change. The type of hurling in the two counties is very similar – apart from Clare the last couple of years with Davy Fitz – but if it comes back to something like an ordinary game you’ll probably find backs trying to dominate and that’s an area we need to improve in Clare.”

On a personal level he remembers two past encounters. In 1993 when Clare were outsiders, Sparrow took flight.

Coming on as an injury replacement in the fourth minutes for Alan Neville he scored 1-5 from play. He believes the match had broader significance.

“If you go through the mid-1990s we contested four All-Ireland finals and Limerick were unlucky not to win one. In 1993 we kind of came out of the pack and when they came to Ennis we had a very good day and got plenty of goals. That kind of got us off the mark and indicated for the first time that there was some potential there.”

They were well beaten in the Munster final by Tipperary but the following year Loughnane got involved as a selector with Len Gaynor and the countdown to an All-Ireland had begun.

Extraordinary occasion In the last year of the sudden death hurling championship, Clare lost their All-Ireland at the first hurdle in a still-remembered match on a blazing Bloomsday 1996 in the Gaelic Grounds, as Limerick burned off a three-point deficit in a few minutes at the end, culminating in Ciarán Carey’s celebrated winning point. O’Loughlin says that he can now appreciate having been part of an extraordinary occasion rather than try to forget the day an All-Ireland was lost.

“No. You appreciate it a lot more when you look back on it. On the day though it was one we probably gave to Limerick. You can’t say we deserved it – you get what you deserve – but we played better hurling I think on the day and should have put them away. If anything we, both players and management, took our foot off the pedal.

“We fed off each other because when we won the All-Ireland in 1995, they came back at us that year and probably should have won it themselves.”

This year neither of them features in the top four on All-Ireland betting lists but already this year’s championship has lurched and June has just begun.

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