O'Donnell's goal poaching puts Banner on track
Clare 3-17 Limerick 2-16
Clare were regarded as being more advanced than Limerick in terms of squad development before yesterday's clash in Thurles and they are now further down this year's All-Ireland road as well.
At worst they will be in last six in the race for the Liam MacCarthy Cup, but there's also a distinct possibility of arriving in Croke Park in August as Munster champions for the first time since 1998.
They will contest the provincial final for the first time since 2008 after living up to the favourites' tag against opposition that did a lot right, only to undermine it with avoidable errors.
Still, it's all part of the learning process for John Kiely's squad, who will feel that this season still has plenty to offer. Yesterday offered possibilities, but they lacked the match-craft to exploit them. The load was also increased substantially by the concession of three goals, all of which will make unpleasant viewing when they review the game as part of the qualifier relaunch assignment.
Shane O'Donnell pounced for the first two (5th and 13th minutes), using his poaching instincts to outwit the defence. It evoked memories of O'Donnell in the 2013 All-Ireland final and while he didn't complete his hat-trick this time, his first-half performance suggested that he's coming good again after a few injury-dogged seasons.
Full marks to O'Donnell for both goals, but Clare's third goal, scored by Conor McGrath in the 51st minute, should have been prevented. Colm Galvin's lobbed effort into the Limerick square bounced nicely for McGrath, who whipped the ball to the net, leaving the defenders to wonder just why he was left unmarked.
That goal was crucial in shaping the contest, which was finely balanced at the time. Clare were leading by three points, but the momentum was with Limerick, who had out-scored the Bannermen 0-4 to 0-2 since half-time.
The goal swung the impetus Clare's way and they built on it for the next five minutes, by which stage they had moved eight points ahead and looked as if they might sprint to a very easy win.
That would have been extremely damaging for Limerick and, in fairness, their response was sufficiently effective to suggest that the fundamentals for growth are firmly in place.
They cut the deficit to five points just past the hour mark and, with a little more precision, would have made more progress.
However, that was as good as it got for Kiely's men, who were seven points adrift heading into stoppage time before Kyle Hayes fired in a late goal.
Clare blew a great opportunity for a fourth goal in the 66th minute when Tony Kelly (right) whizzed a penalty wide.
It summed up his day. The Ballyea man is one of the most gifted talents in the game, but things passed him by to a large degree yesterday, so it says a lot about Clare's overall game that they won without one of their main men on full throttle.
O'Donnell and McGrath scored 3-5 between them, while David Reidy pointed five frees but shot no fewer than six wides in the second-half - five from placed balls.
It was uncharacteristically wayward, but at least it came on a day when Clare had enough in hand to offset such waste. Still, Reidy will need to get back to the practice range before the Munster final clash with Cork or Waterford on July 9.
Clare finished with 14 wides (10 in the second-half), with Limerick only one behind after being off-target 11 times in the first-half.
They started well, with Shane Dowling pointing two long-range frees in the first minutes, but were out-scored by 2-5 to 0-1 over the next 16 minutes, by which stage their wides tally had reached seven.
It was a worrying time for Limerick, but all changed in the space of five minutes, during which they hit 1-5. It was a remarkable transformation as every facet of their play improved, leaving Clare looking decidedly ragged.
David Dempsey fired in the goal in the 22nd minute, reacting quickly after Andrew Fahy had saved from Cian Lynch. A Paul Browne point completed the comeback, drawing the sides level after 25 minutes and raising hope among Limerick supporters that something special was unfolding.
After surrendering an eight-point lead, Clare were now facing a real test of their resolve and they reacted in a manner which augurs well for the rest of the season.
They scored five unanswered points, leaving them leading by 2-10 to 1-8 at half-time and posing a whole new range of problems for Limerick.
Kiely's men worked hard to address them after half-time and had made some progress before being hit by McGrath's match-defining goal.
Kiely will have a number of 'things to do' on his file when Limerick resume training for the qualifier games on July 1.
The defence needs to be more street-wise, especially in the one-on-one exchanges, where they were too easily out-manoeuvred. Sean Finn was a notable exception, getting in some crucial flicks and blocks, but as a unit there was a lack of cohesion which made life easier than it should have been for Clare.
There's room for lots of improvement in the Limerick attack as well. They didn't score from play until the 20th minute, failed to land even a single point in the last 12 minutes of the first-half and managed only one score in the final 11 minutes of the second-half.
Three of the forwards were replaced in the second-half, but on the encouraging side replacements Barry Nash and Pat Ryan did well.
It leaves Kiely with various options which, no doubt, he will seriously consider in the coming weeks.
Clare have areas to work on as well, but will do so from a confident position after ending a disappointing run in Munster. They are using a more orthodox approach under new joint managers Gerry O'Connor and Donal Moloney and while it does need further refinement, the signs are now promising.
David McInerney was their outstanding defender, repeatedly breaking up Limerick attacks while also anticipating play most intelligently.
Still, there will be concern over the manner in which an eight-point lead was wiped out so quickly in the first-half.
Limerick lacked the capacity to make that dramatic turnaround really count, but others won't if the opportunity arises. Nor will they afford O'Donnell and McGrath as much room.
On the plus side for Clare, Kelly is most unlikely to be as quiet again and Reidy will no doubt have sorted out his free-taking radar by Munster final day. They also had some problems with Andrew Fahy's puck-outs in the first-half, some of which went astray, although there was a marked improvement from there on.
Scorers - Clare: S O'Donnell 2-2, C McGrath 1-3, D Reidy 0-5 (5f), J Conlon 0-2, C Galvin, C Cleary, J McCarthy, S Morey, I Galvin 0-1 each. Limerick: S Dowling 0-7 (7f), D Dempsey, K Hayes 1-1 each, C Lynch, P Browne (1s/l) 0-2 each, P Casey, B Nash, P Ryan 0-1 each.
Clare: A Fahy 6; S Morey 7, D McInerney 8, P O'Connor 7; G O'Connell 7, C Cleary 7, D Fitzgerald 7; C Galvin 7, D Reidy 6; T Kelly 5, P Collins 6, J Conlon 7; A Shanagher 6, C McGrath 8, S O'Donnell 9. Subs: J McCarthy 6 for O'Connell (53), I Galvin 7 for Collins (59), A Cunningham for Shanagher (63), C Malone for McGrath, C McInerney for Kelly (69).
Limerick: N Quaid 6; S Finn 8, R McCarthy 6, M Casey 5; D Morrissey 6, D Hannon 6, S Hickey 7; P Browne 6, J Ryan 6; S Dowling 6, D Dempsey 7 , C Lynch 7; P Casey 6, K Hayes 7, G Mulcahy 5. Subs: B Nash 7 for Mulcahy (ht), R English 6 for M Casey (41), T Morrissey 6 for P Casey (53), P Ryan 7 for Dowling (57), A Gillane for Ryan (57).
Ref - J McGrath (Westmeath)
Game at a glance
Man of the Match: Shane O’Donnell (Clare). His two goals in the first quarter were the epitome of opportunism, both expertly finished by the ace poacher. He also popped over two points.
Talking point: Is this the start of something big for Clare? They badly needed a win in the Munster Championship and they duly achieved it. All is not lost for a developing Limerick team, who will have learned a lot from this experience.
Magic moment: Shane O Donnell’s first goal came off a sweet ground strike, a skill which is exhibited all too rarely in the modern game.
Ref watch: James McGrath did well enough overall but questions arise about the awarding of a penalty to Clare late on. The referee was a long way from the action but didn’t consult with his umpires before making the decision. Tony Kelly drove the penalty wide so it didn’t matter but Limerick would have been very unhappy if the finish were tighter.
Match statistics: Wides: Clare 14 (4 in first half), Limerick 13 (11). Frees: Clare 13 (6 in first half), Limerick 11 (5). Yellow cards: Clare 0, Limerick 4 (M Casey 26, C Lynch 36, S Finn 71, R McCarthy 72). Red cards: Clare 0, Limerick 0
What’s next?: Clare play Cork or Waterford in the Munster final on July 9; Limerick head for the All-Ireland qualifiers on July 1.