Limerick keep their championship alive against Clare

It would have been the earliest exit by the All-Ireland hurling champions in 27 years

Limerick 1-28 Clare 0-13


John Kiely doesn't choose the word lightly, the Limerick manager pausing for deeper thought when asked about the possibility of a defeat here ending the All-Ireland champions' interest for the rest of the summer.

Almost as inconceivable perhaps as Limerick beating close rivals Clare by 18 points, another crushing one-sided contest in the original game of thrones, and raising fresh questions about the format: Clare are relying on the promise of a miracle to survive past next Sunday’s final round, this arguably their worst result in a decade.


No such worries for Limerick: not in the end anyway. It’s a long way down to nowhere when you’re the All-Ireland champions and caught standing over the edge of your season before it properly begins.

“When you think, when you know, that if you don’t produce the goods then you’re gone out of it, for us that was an inconceivable thought, let alone a reality,” added Kiely, describing Limerick’s performance as one of the best in his three years as manager, effectively ensuring they stay alive past June. “There was no way we were going to let it go today, exit the championship this early. We gave ourselves a chance, obviously Clare had beaten us for the last three years. So there was a lot of motivation there.

“I think we set the tempo of the game, got our set-up right from the word go, and fellas stuck to it from start to finish. Our use of the ball was exceptional, and if we did turnover, we got it back. And I’d say our efficiency up front was probably the best it’s been all year.”

Had Limerick lost it would have been the earliest exit by the All-Ireland hurling champions in 27 years: so with a performance of rage and no small fury they turned fast on their heels and quickly began tearing Clare to ribbons. It was already curtains by half-time - Limerick playing with all the hallmarks that made them All-Ireland champions, each score either as good as the next or else better.

Aaron Gillane, in another man of the match display, was unstoppable and finished with 1-11, three from play, his goal coming on 58 minutes at which point some Clare supporters were already heading for the exits from the packed 29,611 Gaelic Grounds. Limerick finished with 11 different scores in all, Peter Casey adding four classy points, Tom Morrissey three.

All six Limerick forwards scored from play in the first half alone, helping them go 0-15 to 0-7 in front at the break, Clare already on their knees and it seemed praying for mercy. Last year’s beaten All-Ireland finalists looked out of time and space, only Peter Duggan’s free-taking offering some hope. He also scored their first from play after a long 30 minutes.

Whatever about being over-coached, Clare at times looked over-whelmed and over-awed. They had problems all over the field: Tony Kelly lost in his own space and time; Podge Collins and Shane O'Donnell and John Conlon more far than near to the ball; Donal Tuohy's puck-outs particularly in the first half (winning only 31 per cent) gifting Limerick some possession and in some cases a score - Graeme Mulcahy's point on 18 resulting from a puck out Tuohy had sent straight over the sideline.

It didn’t help that Kiely’s team were at their All-Ireland winning best: “Sure there’s always a doubt you might get it wrong, or over-cook it. Sometimes it can mean so much that it’s too much, and you don’t perform. But we kept away from any emotive issues, kept focused on the practical elements of our performance, and got ourselves right. And they absolutely delivered. They found themselves in a very difficult place three weeks ago, dug themselves out of a hole, but we’ve still more work to do.

“We got a fight, but we absorbed it. There was some heroic defending there at times. But now we’re coming across the best team in the country in Tipperary next Sunday. At the end of the day we’ve only four points, and we need something more.”

Duggan finished with 0-11, Tony Kelly and later Colm Galvin the only others to chip in with a point each. Clare closed in on some goal chances early on but Limerick were in no mood to concede there either, Sean Finn a granite pillar in the corner, Declan Hannon lording centre back. William O’Donoghue had another fine game at midfield, and off the bench too Shane Dowling and Darragh O’Donovan.

Clare joint-manager Donal Moloney didn’t disguise the depths of the wounds: “It has been a difficult week, and a difficult day,” he said. “Fair play to Limerick they brought a really top class performance today. They are a good bit ahead of us throughout the entire game.”

It’s been a long time since none of the Clare inside forwards managed a score, Collins replaced and Conlon in particular lacking his usual touch. Given Cork’s run of late it’s hard to imagine how Clare will survive.

“I’ll tell you in a week’s time,” added Moloney. “We have had low points so far. We have had great days. We are always level-headed enough to know that we have had some fantastic days with Clare. We recognise we didn’t make them proud today. That is something we have to look at.”

So here’s the deal as it now stands: Tipperary’s three-game unbeaten run means only very big wins for Limerick and Cork next weekend will deny them a Munster final. Waterford’s meltdown of a season finished on Saturday evening when they lost their fourth game straight to Cork.

Clare host Cork in Ennis next Sunday, needing a win to stay alive for another day. If they win and Limerick lose, they’ll join them and Cork on four points. But their current scoring difference is -30. If Clare win and Limerick win the Banner county will take third place. If Limerick lose and Cork win they’ll drop to third and Cork will contest the final against Tipp.

LIMERICK: Nicky Quaid; S Finn; M Casey, R English; D Byrnes (0-1), D Hannon (capt) (0-1), P O'Loughlin; C Lynch, W O'Donoghue (0-1); G Hegarty (0-2), K Hayes (0-1), T Morrissey (0-3); A Gillane (1-11, seven frees, one 65) , G Mulcahy (0-2), P Casey (0-4).

Subs: D O’Donovan (0-1) for O’Donoghue, S Dowling (0-1) for Hegarty (both 55 mins), D Morrissey for Hannon, S Flanagan for Casey (both 62 mins), P Ryan for Mulcahy (68 minutes).

CLARE: D Tuohy; D McInerney, P O'Connor (capt), D Fitzgerald; C Malone, C Cleary, J Browne; S Golden, C Galvin (0-1); P Duggan (0-11, eight frees, one 66), T Kelly (0-1), P Collins; A Shanagher, J Conlon, S O'Donnell.

Subs: A McCarthy for Golden (half time), D Ryan for Shanagher (48 mins), S Morey for Fitzgerald (48 mins), J McCarthy for Collins (58 mins).

Referee: James Owens (Wexford)

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics