Sparrow gets Banner flying again
Without the stimulus of old spites and hatreds, this was supposed to be hurling's equivalent of plucking dead heads off geraniums.
Clare were just shoeshine boys, coming to town for a day of bowed labour. Yet, they found something of their contrary past in Limerick. And, as a low sky threw back their cries of hurt in the end, you had to suspect they were more alive than they've been since priests could prophesise Munster Council business.
The beauty of what Clare achieved yesterday was that it forced Tipperary to find the best of themselves.
Nothing went uncontested. There was a heat to the Banner we had come to associate only with sentimental trips back to the 1990s when they were hurling's Hollywood. Of course, 'Sparrow' O'Loughlin was part of that movement.
His inter-county life took him from the perpetual hurt of fighting the fight of championship makeweights to becoming part of, maybe, the most elemental force hurling had ever seen.
O'Loughlin conceals that steel inside him well now. He has a learned, slightly pasty presence and, at face value, looks about as gladiatorial as a wren. But when Ger Loughnane's team was mastering its scorched earth policy, O'Loughlin was a primary enforcer.
He understands, then, the possibilities that can be mined from unity and selflessness in a group. He knows how a suitably pared body can play tricks on the mind. It's not in his personality to defer to the tyrannies of tradition. For as long as Sparrow lives, he will never encounter a Tipperary jersey without imagining a bullseye printed on the chest.
Yet, this Tipp team is no ordinary confederacy.
As manfully as Clare hurled yesterday, it is quite sobering to reflect that -- trailing 1-3 to 0-0 after eight minutes -- Tipp won the remainder by 15. They did so as they've been doing for two seasons now. Through the currency of goals.
And, for Padraic Maher, the team's firepower has become a comfort blanket.
"The first 20 minutes I suppose you could say we weren't really awake," sighed the Sarsfields man. "No one was giving Clare a chance, but we were always expecting that battle.
"We know we've the forward line capable of doing damage if we get the ball in to them. The likes of Seamie and Lar and Eoin and Noel ... you know we've plenty of forwards to tuck the goals away.
"And when they did that, it took the pressure off us. It's a good sign of the team that we didn't panic. We know we have the forward line, just to get it in there."
Three of the Tipp goals came in a murderous pocket of four minutes and, thereafter, Clare's heroism was probably doomed to failure. It seemed almost cruel in its brevity. In an instant, they went from leading by six to trailing by two. Star-gazing to a glimpse of the gutter.
Conor McGrath's wonderful goal after just 42 seconds had signposted their attitude. They pounced on Tipp with the venom of jungle creatures coming upon dinner. McGrath and Diarmuid McMahon bullocked past markers as if they were shop-front mannequins and, in defence, the entire backline looked intent on making things personal.
But it was more than venom that distinguished Clare. Their hurling was pitched to a speed and coherence that scarcely seemed possible after a winter of regrets in Division 2. For a time, an upset seemed believable.
But then, as O'Loughlin surmised: "We'd done all the hurling and, then, bang, bang, bang. That comes with probably the best six forwards you'll have in the country at a given time. And they are. They showed that again today, that you just can't give them space or the looseness that we gave them at times."
Forensic will probably identify all the goals as avoidable, but how do you hermetically seal a backline for 70 minutes? Eoin Kelly, Patrick 'Bonner' Maher and Lar Corbett all took their opportunities with a cold assassin's aim.
"I suppose most of ye guys wouldn't have given us a chance of being six points up," Sparrow sighed to the media. "But most times in hurling, goals win matches. We've paid the price of giving them soft goals to bring them back into it. That's something again that we have to learn quickly.
"Like, we had a tremendous start. Our hurling was very crisp, our tackling was ferocious and we looked the team. But we let them back into it. And against All-Ireland champions like Tipp, there's never a panic button pressed. They'll turn the screw on you if they get half the chance. And they got a couple with us."
This was supposed to be B-movie stuff. A marketing swindle. Clare were too young and vulnerable for what Tipp looked certain to summon. In years to come, the U-21s of 2009 may form the spine of a serious senior team but, for now, we surmised they were going to war with rifles against tanks.
Just before the parade, Sparrow called them to order in a tight huddle and you could easily believe he was preparing them for a dark place.
But his team hurled with a native power that most considered dormant. Had they turned a corner now?
"It's hard to know," said O'Loughlin. "It was a once-off maybe. Nobody gave us a chance, we probably came into it with very little pressure on the whole thing. So only in a couple of weeks will we know have we taken that step and turned that corner.
"If we produce that again, we will be hard to beat in the qualifiers."
Tipp did ease away in the second half, hurling beautifully and carelessly, as tends to be their way. Corbett and Seamie Callanan, socks pulled high, looked regal in every movement. Some of the points scored all but fell off an easel.
Yet, they accumulated enough wides too to have been vulnerable against more wily opposition.
Noel McGrath and Corbett should have added further goals, Patrick Donnellan intervening on the former's penalty and the latter's mis-hit drive. But, truth to tell, they were on cruise control by the time Callanan knifed home their fourth.
"Our ability to get goals has stood to us again," said Declan Ryan. "I suppose the performance in the first 20 minutes wouldn't be what you'd be looking for. T'would have been very bleak at half-time for us only for the goals.
"But I think they showed a lot of composure even though we went down. The work-rate was very good. T'was a slippery one for us. We know Clare have done a lot of great work at underage and were unlucky not to win a minor (All-Ireland) last year.
"They won the U-21 the year before. So they're obviously a coming force.
"But I think there's a lot of composure in this group. Even the younger guys are winners, they've competed at a very high level now for a number of years."
Maybe more than anything it is that composure that defines them now. But they have a lot of hurling already done for the middle of June too and it remains a moot point if they can pace this thing to September. Ryan is predicting "a huge battle" in the Munster final with Waterford and probably won't be disappointed.
For Clare, the treacherous qualifiers await and an awkward journey to Salthill.
O'Loughlin hopes their stamina will hold up better than it did yesterday.
"Training was a bit disjointed because in Clare we decided to have two rounds of the club championship in May," he said with a little salt in his voice. "As a result, we came back with three or four guys injured and, as we expected, a few of them ran out of gas today. Look, we threw the kitchen sink at them (Tipp) and learned a good bit from it hopefully.
"But they are the team, and will be the team, to beat."