Limerick should just have the edge in a fascinating clash between keen Munster rivals
John Allen’s men look strong enough to master the challenge from a resurgent young Clare team
Limerick’s Tom Condon and Richie McCarthy tackle Cork’s Luke O’Farrell during the Munster final at the Gaelic Grounds. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho
Fundamentally this is an age-old rivalry that is never easily predicted. These are two neighbouring counties with a lot of cross-border connections. Many of them would have been at third-level together in UL or LIT or Mary I and others have even been at secondary school together.
For instance Clare’s Cathal McInerney, Colin Ryan, Nicky O’Connell and Darach Honan were all at Árdscoil Rís where they would have been coached by Limerick panellist Niall Moran, who, as such, has helped to bring on tomorrow’s opponents.
On the basis of what we’ve seen the standard should be pretty good and I fully expect this to be a serious game of hurling even if I’m less than fully convinced how it’s going to turn out. I think however that Limerick will win.
They’ve shown form all year and should have beaten Dublin in the league promotion final but failed to take a number of chances, including frees which were unreliable on the evening in question. On that basis they’re at least as good as Dublin and I’d rate them better and the latter showed themselves pretty capable by winning Leinster.
I felt Limerick were impressive when playing Kilkenny in a pre-championship challenge and they maintained that when beating Tipperary in the Munster championship even though Tipp missed a lot of chances early on in the semi-final.
So far Limerick have shown a serious resolve in defence especially Richie McCarthy, Tom Condon and Wayne McNamara and the key periods in their championship matches have been nearly all influenced by the Limerick backs.
You could question the form-line from beating Tipp, given their forwards’ mediocre performance against Kilkenny, but the credit rating in beating Cork has risen steadily since.
That Munster final victory featured a couple of influences: the massive support behind the team and the red card for Pa Horgan. No-one can say for definite the sending-off didn’t affect the outcome and he’s played really well for Cork in the matches since but at the time it happened I thought Limerick were already well in control. James Ryan, Donal O’Grady and the backs had taken charge by that stage.
They have shown a level of consistency that makes them the form team of the championship so far but there are nonetheless a couple of concerns.
The five-week break for Dublin didn’t appear to cause serious problems but at the same they weren’t attacking the ball with the fluency they had in the Leinster championship and Limerick may face the same problem after their own five-week break.
Then there’s the question of the Limerick support, which looks like it’s going to be massive. The difference is that, unlike the Gaelic Grounds, Croke Park has in recent times been a place of despair for the county. Twice in the 1990s they lost All-Irelands they should have won and on their most recent visit they were humiliated by Tipperary in 2009.
Even 2007 – although it was a great achievement to reach the All-Ireland final – was played out in the almost certain knowledge that Kilkenny would beat them.
Limerick supporters are a major positive factor in the Gaelic Grounds but in Croke Park they might become anxious, particularly if Clare take this down to the wire in typical, derby fashion. They’re back as real contenders with their best chance of winning an All-Ireland since 1996 and that has to create nervousness – not so much for the players as for the Limerick crowd.
Another little worry I have about Limerick is Shane Dowling isn’t starting. Ultimately free-taking is proving really important given that the conversion rate is getting higher and higher and there’s not much between the teams that are left. So, not starting your best free-taker is taking a chance.
But John Allen has proved himself to be a very smart manager and not just this year. He knows the game well and has prepared players with an emphasis on decision-making and that’s a positive for Limerick.
Ultimately you can have a game plan but you have to be able to react and that will be important for Limerick because Clare will change it around and mix it up and Limerick players mightn’t even know who they’re playing until the throw-in.
Against Galway, Patrick Donnellan moving back and Conor Ryan being introduced had an impact on the quarter-final. Donnellan dropping back in front of Joe Canning completely threw Canning and Galway and they never really recovered.
But Limerick through Allen and the responsibility he gives his players have met challenges impressively so far, as could be seen by the exceptionally efficient use of the spare man against Cork. Tomorrow will be tight however and, like last week, can be decided on the day by things like who gets momentum and who copes better with the switches in momentum.
Clare are on the way to becoming a serious team with excellent hurlers. Their under-21s were outstanding against Tipperary in the Minster final. Tomorrow they’ll field a very young side – even in an era when the average age of teams is coming down.
They’ve some serious players like full back David McInerney, Brendan Bugler, Patrick O’Connor, Colm Galvin and up front Tony Kelly, Honan and Podge Collins who are all playing well.
I think they’ve improved and aren’t as enslaved as they were to short- passing but they still have two major flaws. One, they’re still prone to defensive errors and are more likely to commit them in possession – and often just after winning it back – as when giving away the ball against Waterford in the first round in Munster.
Two, their finishing isn’t yet of a good enough standard and certainly not commensurate with some of their approach play.
I was watching their goalkeeper Patrick Kelly in the qualifiers and he was becoming increasingly agitated at their failure to close the game out against Wexford. They’re not getting the necessary precision in their finishing even if it’s not as bad as in the relegation play-off earlier this year when they accumulated 24 wides.
Tomorrow they’ll have to improve in both areas but they pose an obvious danger with their pace and confidence.
If either side could come with goals they’d be considerably improving their chances. There have been much fewer goals than usual this year and a lot of the ball is being played in front of the forwards and not just being lamped in, so there haven’t been as many obvious opportunities.
Overall though Limerick’s game looks in better shape and I fancy them just about to get there.