Wednesday 19 September 2018

Jamesie O'Connor: It's always borderline war when Clare meet Limerick and home fire might burn brightest

Ambitious young sides won't take backward step today in a contest with echoes of past skirmishes

There has always been a testy rivalry between Clare and Limerick and that continued in March’s league quarter-final. Photo: Diarmuid Greene. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
There has always been a testy rivalry between Clare and Limerick and that continued in March’s league quarter-final. Photo: Diarmuid Greene. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Jamesie O'Connor

A Friday evening, November 1998. The fledgling GPA had called a meeting in Mallow for the Munster players, and four of us from Clare - Brian Lohan, Anthony Daly, Niall Gilligan and myself - had agreed to attend. Lohan drove and we were down in good time for the 8.0 start. After the meeting, we decided to have one drink at the bar. I was keen to get home. My club, St Joseph's Doora/Barefield, were playing Toomevara in the Munster final on the Sunday, the biggest day in the club's history. Our first county title in 40 years had been won three weeks earlier and we had gone to Waterford and upset a star-laden Mount Sion side - Tony Browne, Ken McGrath et al - in the semi-final seven days later.

I would be expected to perform and produce the goods. But fewer than 48 hours from the game, I realised where I was, and who I was with. Daly. And Gilligan. Together. In November, with no club or county commitments on the horizon. And the opportunity to lead Lohan astray. It wouldn't be one we were having. Why hadn't I driven down separately?

We were chatting to the Limerick lads, Stephen McDonagh, Clem Smith and James Moran when Daly, at Mike Houlihan's suggestion, announced we were decamping to a pub in Charleville.

It was obviously one of Houlihan's haunts because by midnight, the landlady was feeding us sandwiches, and the pints were flowing. The conversation and crack was good, but part of me was still thinking about Toomevara, and not making an ape of myself on the Sunday. At this stage, the keys of Lohan's Golf were in my pocket, and it was clear who would be driving home. At 2.0am, I had Daly, laughing his head off, telling me that Tommy Dunne and the Toomevara lads had at least three hours' sleep got at this stage. I wasn't getting much sympathy from the Limerick crowd either. I can't remember what time I finally got them out, but it was a memorable night.

It's one of the few times I remember socialising with the Limerick lads off the field. But for the previous five years, on the field, it was borderline war every time we played. I made my championship debut against them in 1993 in Cusack Park. They were league champions, we had been relegated, and Clare hadn't won a Munster Championship match in five years. They clearly didn't rate us and we knew it. Apparently, Dalo had made up his mind beforehand that he was decking one of them before the game had even started.

Breaking from the parade, and minding his own business, Mike Reale was the unfortunate one who found himself flattened, and we wired into them from the throw-in. 'The Sparrow' gave an exhibition in attack, Stephen Sheedy was brilliant and I had my first championship win.

Payback came 12 months later when they dished out a hiding to us in the Munster final. Ger Loughnane took the helm shortly afterwards and in the following year's league match, had no sympathy for me and my lack of performance at half-time. Bending down to jab-lift an early ball, my direct opponent had kneed me into the back and it was badly inhibiting me. Crankily, I fired back, but until the game was won, I had to suffer on, because there was no way he was taking me off.

There was serious timber flying that day. Midway through the second half, what's best described as "a loose stroke" from Mike Nash left a gaping wound in Jim 'Machine Gun' McInerney's forehead. Jim - father of the current Clare full-back David - got in "a little bit of retaliation" that left Mike in a heap on the ground. When Declan Nash, Mike's brother, arrived, hurley raised, to exact vengeance, Jim, in self-defence mode, caught it with one hand and swung with the other. Needless to say, all hell broke loose. Jim and Declan got their marching orders, more could easily have followed.

Later that summer, we played them in a challenge match in Broadford in East Clare. More belting. We were pathetic the same day. They were clearly up for it and won well. The only consolation was managing to return the favour for the knee in the back. A couple of months later, we reversed it when it really mattered in the Munster final. A year on, they turned the tables with Ciarán Carey's now famous last-minute winner. Of course, there were varying degrees of murder in between, whether it was the league or challenge matches.

That August, ahead of the 1996 All-Ireland final, their manager Tom Ryan contacted Loughnane about a possible challenge. Why, I don't know, but for some reason he agreed to it. To me, there were a couple of issues. Firstly, why would we do anything that might help our fiercest rivals win an All-Ireland? Secondly, while some of our backs were secretly thrilled - a chance to cleave the Limerick forwards behind closed doors with no fear of suspension or disciplinary action. The Limerick backs were licking their lips, with the exact same mindset. Good job 'Machine Gun' wasn't playing. Survival mode kicked in. Keep moving, Jamesie. Moving targets are harder to hit.

That, coupled with how sick we were after Carey's unbelievable winner, meant we badly wanted Limerick in the championship in 1997. Tipp took them out in the semi-final though and the vagaries of the system meant that even though I hurled until 2004, I would never play them in the championship again. Thereafter, drawing each other year after year meant Tipp took their place as our biggest Munster rival.

One of the beauties of the new format is that the border rivalries are no longer hostage to the draw and are likely to be renewed. And this is potentially one of the best of them. When these two sides last met in the league quarter-final in March, two periods of extra-time couldn't separate them. It's unlikely to be too dissimilar today.

I described last Sunday as a defining game for this Clare team. It was, but they didn't make it easy for themselves. The opening 25 minutes were a disaster. Their touch was leaden, their handling was poor and Tony Kelly had three wides in succession from shots he'd normally nail. That seemed to drain their confidence further. Behind 1-10 to 0-5 with ten minutes to the break, they were staring into the abyss. Managing to halve that deficit and only go in four behind was pivotal in getting them back into the match.

They obviously got a huge break when Jake Morris hit the post with that chance in the 65th minute, but this team were due a bit of luck. Sometimes, it's not how well you played, or how much you won by that's important. It's how you won, the manner of it that really matters. Yes, there was a degree of skill - Podge Collins, Ian Galvin, John Conlan and Peter Duggan all got top-class scores in those final minutes - but it was sheer guts and perseverance that got Clare over the line. Shane O'Donnell diving to flick the ball for Duggan's last score typified it. That's why the Clare supporters were so ecstatic afterwards. The team hung in, and showed they had the balls for it when it really mattered.

That's something you can't put a value on, and don't underestimate the lift the Clare players will have got from it.

Of course, Limerick reaped a similar dividend from their heroics in Cork the previous weekend. The heart they showed, playing with 14 men for three quarters of the match and salvaging the draw was better than any victory. Limerick people were justifiably proud afterwards. That's what makes today's match even more appealing. You have two ambitious young sides, both feeling pretty good about themselves, neither of whom will want to take a backward step.

On form, Limerick deserve to be favourites. They beat Tipp by six, went to Cork and got a result, and produced arguably the most impressive performance of the summer last weekend to hockey Waterford. There's a growing confidence about their play, the team has a settled look and they're a well-drilled outfit. Clare, in comparison, got out of jail last weekend, lost to Cork and were the direct beneficiaries of the misfortune that befell Waterford in Ennis.

Nonetheless, all that goes out the window this afternoon. With the size and physicality Limerick have in their half-back and half-forward lines, can Clare mine enough primary possession to get the scores needed to win?

When Donal Tuohy steps up to puck out the ball, he'll have to navigate a lot of tall bodies in green jerseys trying to shut down the spaces where he'll want to go. It was noticeable in the Cork match how organised Limerick were on the opposition puck-out. Clare went man for man against them and Anthony Nash kept finding the spaces vacated as a result of the movement off the ball by the Cork forwards. Limerick weren't prepared to do that and adopted a more zonal approach.

Diarmuid Byrnes in particular held his position, rather than following Daniel Kearney out the field, and Cork's number 10 became the responsibility of the midfielders and half-forwards to pick up. I was really impressed with the way they were communicating on the field, talking to each other, knowing exactly what their roles were. For a finish, Cork were running out of ideas and even down a man, it felt that most of the second half was being played on Limerick's terms.

That's a worry for Clare, because Limerick will know the best way of stopping John Conlon and Shane O'Donnell in the Clare full-forward line is to cut off the supply at source. Conlon is in great form and gives Clare a different dimension on the edge of the square, while O'Donnell racked Limerick in Thurles a year ago. With Podge Collins back in the starting 15 after last Sunday's heroics, Clare have a potent inside line. Will see they enough of the ball to hurt Limerick?

The other Clare player Limerick have to account for is Tony Kelly. He was the best player on the field in that league quarter-final back in March. He's still struggling to regain that form and couldn't get on the ball at all in the second half last Sunday. There will be pockets of space that he can exploit today, but it's hard to see Clare winning without him being more involved.

If Kelly is important to Clare, Cian Lynch in many respects is Limerick's equivalent. He's having a great season, linking the play, distributing the ball and getting forward for key scores. Limerick, after hitting four goals in that league match, will feel they have the players to go after the Clare full-back line. By restoring David McInerney to full-back though, rather than Conor Cleary who never looked fully comfortable there on that night, Clare should be harder to break down. Limerick have chosen to keep Aaron Gillane on the bench but he caused plenty of problems that evening, and will appear at some stage.

There are so many other sub-plots. Paul Kinnerk and Alan Cunningham, both in the Limerick backroom team, have ridiculously close ties with the Clare camp. Many of the players have soldiered with and against each other with UL, LIT and Mary I in the Fitzgibbon Cup. There will arguably be a bigger Limerick crowd present given how many stories I've heard about Clare supporters returning to their local Centras after Thurles to get tickets, only to find they had all been snapped up.

Who wins? Toss a coin. Head says Limerick. But heart says Clare. Home advantage has to be worth something and if Limerick are physically stronger, Clare have arguably more class. Heart wins out. Home win.

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