Stakes high as Limerick and Clare vie for top flight spot

Tough assignment for TJ Ryan’s men as they travel to face great rivals in Ennis

March in Ennis and the one thing we can be close to certain of is that the hurling will spit and fire like it’s from another time and place entirely.

Division 1B is like the dole queue in the downturn – there’s no disgrace in being there but you still want to escape it as quickly as possible before too many people start talking.

Clare are a side in a hurry and in all honesty can't really be doing with another spring in the lower stream. But their yen to get out of it is as nothing compared to Limerick's, for whom defeat tomorrow would mean a logic-defying seventh straight season outside hurling's top flight in 2017.

It’s such a strange anomaly for a team that has been competitive in the championship for many of those years. They’ve won a Munster championship, been runners-up in another, made it to two All-Ireland semi-finals, all without playing league games against the top teams in any given year. TJ Ryan’s side will turn up in Cusack Park the butt of a joke that they didn’t find funny to begin with.


“History shows us that in certain games over the last two or three years we have let our standards drop a bit,” Ryan said after their runaway win over Laois last week.

“[In other decisive league games] we made slip-ups that were costly but this time round it’s critical.

Huge game

“We probably would have been expected from the outset to win the four games so far.

"That brought a bit of pressure in itself but at the same time that's parked now and next week is a huge game for us. It's a huge game for Limerick hurling and we are in the position that we wanted to be in with four wins."

It’s not as if Limerick have played especially badly in the league since 2010. Their record since being relegated that year reads: played 34, won 25, drawn 5, lost 4. But as Ryan intimated last week, every campaign along the way seemed to throw up a banana skin that they couldn’t avoid.

They lost a couple of finals by a puck of a ball each time. The one final they did win, they were gazumped out a top-flight place by a change in the structure of the leagues.

In 2014, they went unbeaten but, since the final had been done away with, Cork went up as table-toppers.

Last year, a desperately untidy late defeat to Offaly did for them after Shane Dowling had been sent off three minutes in. Reasons, explanations, excuses. Take your pick.

“At the start of the year for each of the last three or four years, we’ve said we are getting out of this league,” said Séamus Hickey last year.

“We won Division Two in 2011 and thought we were getting out of it and then we didn’t because they changed the format. We made the final in 2012 and lost to Clare.

“We finished top of the table in 2013 and didn’t go up because we lost the final to Dublin. Then they changed it again and did away with the final altogether, which we would have been in both years. It’s frustrating as hell but that’s the way it goes.”

So far in 2016, they’ve played like they’re sick and tired of the place and really mean it this time. Ryan’s side are the leading scorers across 1A and 1B by a fair distance and the fact that their scoring difference is better than Clare’s – +58 as opposed to +46 – means that even a draw will do them tomorrow.

There’s a small bit of phony war to it all, of course.

“I went in and watched Limerick Saturday night and they knocked up 6-29, I thought they were absolutely on fire,” said Davy Fitzgerald when he was asked about Limerick last week. “We struggled to beat Laois the week before.”

Whether he was being mischievous or not, we know that in and of itself, becoming a Division 1A team is clearly not essential to a good summer.

Waterford showed that last year, as Cork and Clare and Limerick themselves had done before. If 2016 lives long in the memory for either of these counties, it won’t be primarily because of anything that happens tomorrow.

Brick wall

But even if this isn’t exactly a brick wall for Limerick, you can only bang your head off anything for so long before you lose your temper with it. It says plenty about where everyone’s priorities lie that the TG4 cameras are headed to Ennis, with Tipp v Cork relegated to deferred coverage.

Nobody is pretending to be indifferent about coming out on the right side of this one.

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin is a sports writer with The Irish Times