Clare’s O’Donnell and McGrath spell double trouble for Limerick
Talented duo to the fore as Clare book place in the Munster final for first time since 2008
Clare’s Shane O’Donnelly scores his second goal against Limerick at Semple Stadium. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
When it was over and the already thin crowd had dwindled to somewhere near skeletal, Shane O’Donnell sat down beside Conor McGrath in the Clare dressing room. Their day’s work done, 3-5 from play scored between them, Clare more comfortable winners over Limerick than the 3-17 to 2-16 scoreline would have you believe.
When O’Donnell mentioned that it was only his second ever win in the Munster championship, McGrath replied it was the same for him.
“And Conor’s on the panel two years longer than me,” O’Donnell smiled afterwards.
As it happens, O’Donnell – who was terrific here and fully deserving of his Man of the Match award – could have had that conversation with pretty much anyone in the Clare dressing-room and the reply would have been the same. Before this, they’d only won a single match in the province since 2008. Putting Limerick away here eased them into their first Munster final since that summer.
You forget. Because these Clare players kissed the sky when a lot of them were still basically children, you forget that they’re still no age. Shane O’Donnell is still only 22, Tony Kelly just 23, David McInerney is 24, Podge Collins 25. By any normal standards, the phase of their hurling career that they come to be remembered for ought only to be starting.
They handled Limerick with notable maturity here. Apart from a dizzy spell midway through the first half, Clare were always in control.
Having spent most of the winter slogging through the drudge of injury rehab, McGrath and O’Donnell played with the freedom of colts let loose. On a day when Tony Kelly was anonymous, Clare still had far more potency to them as a result.
“The amount of work those guys have done in rehab since last November is just incredible,” said Clare co-manager Gerry O’Connor afterwards. “Once they had the initial surgery out of the way, they went beyond the call of duty in terms of the rehab programme that they put themselves through.
“We had an inconsistent league by our own admission but rightly or wrongly, we put undue pressure on ourselves to perform here today and that bunch of players, they knew they were under pressure to perform.
“Shane O’Donnell has been in incredible form for the last three weeks. We had an A and B game two weeks ago and Shane was just back from injury and he didn’t make the A team and the response that he gave in that game meant he just could not but start.”
O’Donnell played most of the game out around centre-forward but he was still in situ to bang home two first-half goals, his instinct for the green flag as keen as ever.
His first goal was a pure strike, pulled on first-time after Limerick keeper Nickie Quaid batted out a high ball from John Conlon. His second was a merciless collect-and-turn all in one movement, leaving the Limerick cover for dead and finishing past Quaid in an eyeblink. It was ruthless stuff.
“It’s a different experience playing out the pitch,” O’Donnell said. “You have more time to express yourself and do something with the ball, instead of being very limited in your options in the full-forward line, having men around you all the time and stopping everything you want to do. You kind of get restricted to just passing the ball off at times. I’m not saying that’s not the right thing to do but it’s limiting.
“So I was delighted the lads put me in and gave me the freedom to play out around the middle. It was just about trying to get on the ball, follow it around a bit. And you know yourself, that can work out well like it did today or sometimes you can be like a spectator at a tennis match, with the ball going back and forth over your head. It can go either way but thankfully today it was good for me.”
Limerick were only ever in this game for a brief burst. Clare were 2-5 to 0-3 ahead and coasting after 19 minutes, only for John Kiely’s side to rain down a cloudburst of 1-5 inside six minutes.
Clare’s goalkeeper Andrew Fahy was struggling to find a friendly hand with his puck-outs and with the wind at Limerick’s backs, they landed shots from all angles and distances. David Dempsey sniped in for a rebound goal after Fahy saved from Cian Lynch and out of nowhere, Limerick had it level.
If Clare were worried, they didn’t show it. The reeled off the last five points of the half through O’Donnell, McGrath, David Reidy and John Conlon carrying the load. And though Limerick nipped them back with the first two points after the break, it was never close. McGrath’s goal on 50 minutes, when his tiptoed run in under a high ball was seen by everyone in the stadium except the Limerick defenders, sucked all conjecture from the result.
“We just left them have too big a gap at the outset,” said Limerick manager John Kiely. “We made it too hard on ourselves, though we responded really well. We took the game to them and dominated there for maybe 10 minutes, we closed the gap right up.
“We would be very happy with that. We probably felt we should have pushed on a bit more even just before the half-time break after coming back level. But Clare responded then, and that’s testament to their character as well, to respond when they’d been tested.”