Thursday 20 July 2017

Banner lit up by return of O'Donnell magic

Shane O’Donnell scores his and his side’s second Limerick. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Shane O’Donnell scores his and his side’s second Limerick. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Shane O'Donnell leans back against the cold concrete of the Kinane Stand, a young monarch surveying his court.

This is a new playground for the Ennis boy. After 2013, we all but expected him to come to these days in a ten-gallon hat, splashing grins and waves as hurling's newest Kodak curiosity. But injury bleached the colour from his story and it's taken him this long to return to us as a living flame of all that is precious in the old game.

Within 15 minutes of the throw-in here, he had 2-1 to his name, ghosting down avenues that Limerick had not reckoned on having to police. His position? Optional. Some weeks ago, he caught fire whilst running loose for Éire Óg in a championship game against O'Callaghan Mills and, soon after, Clare gave him the same licence when chosen on the Bs in a training game.

And what Donal Moloney and Gerry O'Connor saw that evening might yet electrify summer.

As O'Connor put it yesterday, "The response he gave in that game meant he just could not but start today. He's been in incredible form!"

Now Clare needed a good deal more than that early gun blast to reach their first Munster final since '08, the gale of O'Donnell's early impact moderating to a strong breeze. But seeing the dance back in his feet surely broadens the scale of opportunity looming before them now. O'Donnell himself is determined not to slow again, given this - remarkably - was only the second Munster senior Championship win of his career.

Torn

The latest injury, a torn knee cartilage, proved more irksome than troubling, slowing recovery rather than impeding game-time. But he is running free now and sensing that liberation from the congestion of the 'square' might empower him to be a brand new player.

"You have more time to express yourself and do something with the ball instead of being very limited with your options in the full-forward line, having men around you all the time stopping everything you want to do," he explains.

"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.

"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."

His first goal was a whip-crack pull bearing too much velocity for Nicky Quaid to react to after five minutes; the second a jet-heeled burst past Mike Casey before again giving Quaid little chance eight minutes later.

O'Donnell was springing with a confidence not seen since that day a teenager knifed 3-3 under the Croke Park lights against a startled Cork. Had that coronation, maybe, come to weigh heavily upon his shoulders?

"I don't think so really," he counters. "I haven't had a year since where I didn't have a serious injury. Trying to shake them off has been my biggest personal battle."

Clare don't do sweepers now and some maintain that has freed them from the supposedly prescriptive last days of the Davy Fitzgerald reign. But it doesn't require orthodox use of a sweeper to condense space and, without possession, Clare still get enough numbers back to ensure they seldom look over-run.

That said, they did hit temporary trouble here when - having surged into an eight-point lead by the 21st minute - they then leaked an unanswered 1-5 in the next five. Suddenly, this was a Limerick team honouring what's in their DNA.

Because, face it, the best Limerick stories have never been written in an artist's loft.

They are at their best hurling with a vigilante anger, heads full of hurt and border resentments. Others might choose to decry the inelegance or coarseness of that style, but Limerick have always looked more effective with tempers set at a high heat.

And that's been a bugbear for their supporters. The suspicion in recent times is of a team trying to be something it could never be.

Recent incarnations have been a little too calculated and insipid, heads turned by a possession game that doesn't suit them. Umbrella cocktails to a clientele with a taste for unwatered whisky.

Trumpets

When Clare won that All-Ireland four years back, that possession game drew a flourish of trumpets. The game, we were told, would have to adjust to a new fashion. Hip to hip was dead.

But that didn't quite prove the case since and, here, Limerick made a game of it by pulling the beanpole Kyle Hayes out to the 'forty' and simply re-discovering their physicality in the middle third. And, for a broadly young team, deprived two cornerstone men in Diarmuid Byrnes and Gearoid Hegarty, this was a warming statement about their future.

In fact, Limerick were, still, right in this game until the 51st minute when a long Colm Galvin delivery was flicked to the net by Conor McGrath, Richie McCarthy still making his way back to port, having being dragged upfield on safari by Aaron Shanagher. McCarthy's absence made it a non-contact moment for McGrath he would not ordinarily expect in the Limerick square.

Thereafter, Clare never really looked in much danger, albeit Hayes's brilliant 69th-minute Killinan-end goal made for a faintly fevered finish on the line.

Still, as Moloney explained after, victory was all that mattered to the Banner. "Yeah this is massive pressure, massive," he conceded. "This is the best group of players we've had in a generation. It's a privilege to work with them but also there are very high expectations.

"We definitely felt it, but we were trying to shield the players as much as possible. But they definitely felt it too. There was no result (acceptable) today other than getting to a Munster final.

"I know the qualifiers served Clare well four years ago, that brilliant nine-week run back then, they gained massive momentum through the qualifiers. But this time around, going through the front door is really important for us."

Irish Independent

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