Joe Canning: Clare have thrown down the gauntlet but Limerick’s arc of improvement augurs well

If Galway’s Cathal Mannion and Concannon don’t play in the Leinster final, Kilkenny can make it four in a row

It’s strange for the venue to command so much attention in the build-up to a provincial final but Clare’s decision to play Limerick in their back garden is fascinating.

I can see why Clare didn’t want to go to Cork – which was Limerick’s preference. It would have been a crazy journey for their supporters, having to go through Limerick on the way, with the traffic and the early throw-in.

Thurles, where the game was played last year, was an obvious option but instead Clare opted for the Gaelic Grounds, with the agreement of Limerick and the Munster Council. By making that call, I think they were looking for some kind of mental edge. To put some pressure back Limerick. It was as if to say, “We’ve beaten ye in there once already this year. We’re not afraid to do it again”.

Limerick’s form has improved in the last couple of games, especially against Cork, but the general aura around the team has slipped since the end of the league.


If they were to lose at home twice, to the same team, in the space of a few weeks, that would put them on the back foot again. I can imagine that’s the way Brian Lohan is thinking. Turn this into a cause for his players. Stare Limerick in the face and make them blink.

Ger Loughnane was our manager in Galway for a couple of years and he was always looking for a cause. I’d say Lohan has the same psyche. The Clare team of the 1990s operated like that, with a huge amount of success. That team would have gone through a stone wall to win, and Lohan has generated the same attitude with these Clare players.

It wouldn’t surprise me if it was a draw at the end of 70 minutes. I wouldn’t be surprised if it went all the way to penalties. These teams have produced some unbelievable games over the last couple of years, but this could be the best one yet.

They know everything they could possibly know about each other, but that doesn’t mean they have worked each other out completely. How will Limerick manage Tony Kelly, for example? They couldn’t hold him in the Munster final last year, when he scored seven points from play, and they couldn’t hold him in the round robin game a few weeks ago, when he was Clare’s top scorer from play with four points.

Other teams have tagged Kelly with a man-marker but I don’t think Limerick will. That’s not their style. I think they’ll trust their system, and they’ll have confidence in each of their backs to pick up Kelly, wherever he lands. They’re not going to bend themselves out of shape for one player.

The other thing about Clare now is that they have other threats too, and they have serious pace. Kelly, Ryan Taylor, David Fitzgerald, Aidan McCarthy and Shane O’Donnell all have the ability to get away from their markers with pure speed. Peter Duggan isn’t slow either when he gets going.

Man for man, the Limerick defence doesn’t have that kind of legs, but their system is designed to cut down the space and reduce one-on-one situations as much as possible. All of the Limerick players have total confidence in that system.

The big thing is can Limerick improve again? Against Tipperary they were better than they had been against Clare, but it wasn’t a massive improvement. They took a much bigger step forward against Cork. There were fewer dropped balls, and there was a much better flow to their play. If they can build on that again, and find another few per cent, they’re going to be hard to beat.

In the Leinster final are two teams who will be demanding big improvements from their last performances. Galway and Kilkenny both expected to win their final game in the round robin, and neither of them did.

There hasn’t been any talk about the venue for the Leinster final, but I think there should have been. What kind of a crowd is going to turn up? It will be more than 20,000, but I can’t see them getting 30,000, and they mightn’t even get close to it. In Croke Park, crowds like that are lost. When the stadium is only a third full, or less, the atmosphere just dies.

I think this game should have been fixed for Tullamore. The capacity would be less than 20,000, but they would have packed the place. I’ve played there when the ground was full and the atmosphere was incredible. Players feed off that kind of buzz, and so do spectators.

Maybe this was the game that Kilkenny and Galway had in the back of their minds for the last few weeks, and maybe that was a factor in their below par performances the last day. It shouldn’t have been.

Galway’s overall record in Leinster finals hasn’t been good since we entered the province in 2009. We’ve been in nine finals and won only three of them. My last Leinster final was in 2020, when we were cruising against Kilkenny, and they got two goals against the run of play.

Winning a Leinster final wouldn’t mean as much to Galway as it would to Kilkenny, being realistic. We’re from Connacht and it’s hard to feel any attachment to another province. But this is an important game for Galway, not just as the shortest route to an All-Ireland semi-final, but to generate some momentum and some confidence.

After the Dublin game they had a lot of things to iron out. I could see no pattern to their attacking play. If I had been playing on the inside line that day, I wouldn’t have known when to make my runs. I wouldn’t have known what kind of ball was coming in, or if it was going to come in. There were too many potshots for scores from out the field. Too many lads were playing like individuals.

Adrian Mullen is a huge loss to Kilkenny, but if Cathal Mannion and Brian Concannon are not fit to start they will be a massive loss to Galway. I think they’re Galway’s two most important players. If they don’t play, I think it could be four in a row for Kilkenny.