Wednesday 28 September 2016

Neighbours go to war in bid to make statement of summer intentions

TJ Ryan and Davy Fitzgerald know that this is a very important season for Limerick and Clare, starting with tomorrow's promotion clash in Ennis

Published 19/03/2016 | 02:30

Here's a quote from Davy Fitzgerald that would send him into the iciest of sweats if its basis were ever to apply to a performance during his tenure as Clare manager. "Limerick blew us off the park and there was nothing we could do to stop them. For some reason, we were off the pace."

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That assessment of a grim afternoon appeared in his autobiography, published 11 years ago (he must be due a follow-up as a lot has happened since 2005) and referred to the 1994 Munster final, where Limerick beat Clare by nine points.

"Blew us off the park".

"Nothing we could do to stop them".

"We were off the pace".

That's totally alien phraseology for Fitzgerald the manager, who would never accept even one, let alone three correctable reasons for defeat. The "off the pace" failing would certainly drive him to the edge of distraction.

When Fitzgerald glances down the line in Cusack Park before the start of tomorrow's Allianz League clash with Limerick, he will see a man who was in involved in Clare's 1994 affliction.

TJ Ryan was 19 years old at the time and no doubt, convinced that after winning a Munster title in his first season, All-Ireland glory would come his way at some stage, probably sooner rather than later.

Disappointing

It didn't. He hurled on until 2006 but Liam MacCarthy continued to avoid Limerick's longing gaze.

Fitzgerald, who started with Clare in 1990, also played his last championship game in 2006, by which time he had won two All-Ireland titles.

A decade on, he has Munster (with Waterford) and All-Ireland (with Clare) successes on his impressive managerial portfolio.

For all that, there's a sense that he's starting out all over again after two disappointing seasons, during which Clare won only one (v Offaly) championship game in 2014-'15, as well as also dropping into 1B.

Tomorrow's game decides whether Clare or Limerick are promoted to 1A and while it might appear more important for the Banner men to return at the first attempt, the pressure on Limerick is equally intense.

They haven't been in the top tier since the disastrous 2010 season when they were forced to field a largely second-string team because of the players' stand-off with Justin McCarthy.

Relegation followed and while they won the second division a year later, they missed out on promotion because of a change in the league format. Since then, they have been unable to escape 1B's clutches which, in itself, is revealing.

So with Clare believing that 1B is no place for a team that won the All-Ireland title three seasons ago and Limerick deeply frustrated by their long-time residency in the second tier, it makes tomorrow's game the most important played so far this year.

Ironically, the losers could go on to win the Division 1 title outright (four counties from 1A and 1B qualify for the quarter-finals) but they still would not be in the top flight next year.

The stakes are as high as they possibly can be at this time of year and the fact that it's a neighbours' showdown adds to the intrigue for a contest which will have Cusack Park rocking.

Na Piarsaigh's All-Ireland win on St Patrick's Day, which came six months after Limerick won the All-Ireland U-21 title, has added to the growing expectations in a county that is seeking its first senior title since 1973.

Ryan knows that. He has seen his side produce some exceptionally good performances over the last two years, even if that elusive consistency, which is so crucial in winning All-Irelands, hasn't been there.

Limerick beat Tipperary in the 2014 Munster semi-final, only to drop their performance level in the final against Cork. A month later, they appeared to be on their way to beating Kilkenny in the All-Ireland semi-final but lost out by two points in a dramatic finale.

"An incredible performance," was Ryan's summation. Brian Cody praised them too ("Limerick were outstanding") but when the excitement had subsided, it was Kilkenny who were preparing for the final, while Limerick were back in base camp.

Still, it left Limerick heading into last season on a surge of optimism but a sloppy performance against Offaly wrecked their 1B promotion chances.

And when they beat Clare in the Munster quarter-final, they followed up with a second-half capitulation against Tipperary, before losing by a point to Dublin in the qualifiers.

All told, it was inconsistent business as usual for Limerick. But then, there's nothing new there. In 2013, they powered their way to a first Munster title for the first time in 17 years, only to implode against Clare in the All-Ireland semi-final.

Consistency

That's why it's more important for Limerick to win tomorrow, followed by progress in the knockout stages. Tomorrow brings a new test of their consistency as they try to force their way into the top six in the league.

The table always tells the truth which, in Limerick's case, is that they haven't been a top-six league side for quite some time.

Clare's need is different but equally pressing. They were somewhat unlucky to be relegated last year, losing by a point to Kilkenny after the toss for venue sent them to Nowlan Park for the play-off, but the reality was that up to then they had lost four of five games.

Players can't feel sorry themselves if they are relegated after that type of run. In fact, they can count themselves lucky to even get a chance at redemption, as is the case for the bottom two in 1A.

It's different tomorrow where both Clare and Limerick are coming in off four wins. But then that was always likely to be the case, which probably explains why the fixture-makers slotted Clare v Limerick in for the final round.

It has served up a winner-takes-all contest which will draw big viewing figures as TG4s 'live' game as interest extends well beyond Shannon boundaries since both counties are regarded as genuine All-Ireland contenders (currently ranked fifth and sixth favourites).

Still, there's an asterisk against both sides. It's three years since Clare hurled the big, brash game that steered them to an All-Ireland win so obviously there has to be a doubts as to whether they can revisit those peaks.

Besides, the overall quality of the 2013 campaign has to be questioned in light of subsequent developments, especially involving Cork who came so close to beating Clare in the All-Ireland final.

For Limerick, it's a matter of showing that they are developing the necessary consistency to complement the efficiency they are capable of outputting on their best days.

Four wins in Division 1B hasn't proved that since all the top contenders would expect to beat Offaly, Wexford, Laois and Kerry fairly comfortably.

Tomorrow won't provide definitive proof of anything for Clare or Limerick but it will offer some indicators. Stand by for a ferocious battle, with Clare edging it.

Irish Independent

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