Sunday 25 August 2019

Vincent Hogan: 'Clare's golden chance to banish bitter rivals into the abyss'

If Cork win today, Limerick will have no safety net in the Gaelic Grounds and the defence of Liam MacCarthy could be over before it has even begun

Limerick’s Dan Morrissey protects possession under pressure from Clare’s Niall Deasy during their National League clash in Ennis. Photo: Sportsfile
Limerick’s Dan Morrissey protects possession under pressure from Clare’s Niall Deasy during their National League clash in Ennis. Photo: Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

In Clare, the modern fashion has been to pine for direct, single-syllable hurling whenever something seems broken in the team.

A reflex instinct to depict structure as codology almost. Scroll right back to that June day at the Gaelic Grounds in 2013 and Louis Mulqueen having a programme thrown in his face with the crude blessing "That's what ye can do with your short f*****g passing!". Three months later, Clare had the Liam MacCarthy in their possession, but just about every year since there's been a point in their season when management faced a charge of being too prescriptive.

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They won only a fourth National League in their history during Davy Fitzgerald's final year (2016), but another Championship passed without them seeing Croke Park. It was enough. Davy's departure was welcomed by a narrow church of old team-mates who seemed to believe he had the team essentially hurling in leg-chains.

After last Sunday's heavy capitulation to Tipperary in Ennis, Brendan Cummins suggested that Clare - now three years under the baton of Donal Moloney and Gerry O'Connor - looked "over-coached".

It seemed an understandable conclusion given the sight of Colm Galvin positioned as a supplementary defender deep into the second-half, despite Tipp being already virtually out of sight and Clare playing with a gale at their backs.

Refuge

But Galvin's positioning in itself wasn't the problem. Moloney and O'Connor clearly wanted the Clonlara man to play a kind of quarter-back role, working the ball inside with short, considered deliveries as distinct from Clare's half-backs simply taking refuge in hit-and-hope. Trouble was, Tipp's remarkable work rate allied to a palpable physical authority clearly short-circuited that plan.

Instead of picking passes, old urges took their toll on Clare, an unmarked Pádraic Maher fending off their aerial assault with all the fuss of a well-fed diner using a toothpick.

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Given Tipp's mood, Clare would probably have lost last Sunday no matter the tactics deployed. But that second-half implosion spoke of a team thinking too little about what they were doing, not too much. In other words, they ended up hurling without discernible reference to a game-plan.

And, against the best teams today, that's a doomed predicament.

For all that, chances are that Clare will arrive at the Gaelic Grounds tomorrow with it in their gift to remove the defending champions from this year's All-Ireland race. Assuming Cork beat Waterford this evening, Limerick must compete tomorrow without the comfort of a safety net. Defeat, in other words, could mean the end of their title defence before this Munster Championship has even run its course.

That isn't, it's true, a scenario broadly anticipated. The bookies have Limerick at 2/5 to win tomorrow, coming as they are off the back of that 20-pont trimming dished out to Waterford in Walsh Park. But those odds will sit uneasily with John Kiely.

Because Limerick's modern relationship with Clare, in other words their relationship with a Clare team that is spatially smart and focused on ball-retention, is far from commanding.

In fact, in their last five championship meetings, Limerick have prevailed only once, winning by a single point in the 2015 Munster quarter-final. In their last three league meetings, Limerick's sole victory was secured through that novel free-taking shoot-out after extra-time in last year's quarter-final.

Brendan Bugler, a member of the 2013 All-Ireland winning Clare team, believes the sense of presumption building around tomorrow's game, could now work to the visitors' advantage.

"This group of lads has never feared playing Limerick," he stresses, "and they like playing at the Gaelic Grounds too. From talking to a few of them, they were gutted with their performance against Tipp. They see it now as them or Limerick. That's it basically. And they won't fear them, no, definitely not.

"Because of the way the games went last weekend, some people seem to be thinking this is a foregone conclusion. But you can be guaranteed with that current Clare group and what they're saying inside there, that's far from the case.

"There's a lot of pride at stake here."

Bugler was surprised to see three of last weekend's attack, Peter Duggan, Shane O'Donnell and John Conlon taken off against Tipp, though he suspects the latter two might have been removed - the game already gone - with a view to preserving energy for Limerick. He was, he says, "very surprised" by Duggan's removal.

No matter, Clare go to Limerick now storing enough hurt to concentrate the mind. Maybe not quite in the sulphorous way of the Loughnane years when the manager ensured an endless flow of slights rolling through Banner heads. Not in the way of that breakthrough '95 Munster final between the Shannonside neighbours when, with Limerick supporters banging the side of the Clare bus, Anthony Daly remembers bellowing at the driver to "Mow the f*****s down!"

Not in the way of a League game the previous November that Daly describes in his autobiography as degenerating into "a thirty-man brawl". Not in the way of '06 either when, as he puts it, the rivalry between the counties touched on hatred. It was, wrote Daly, "absolutely savage. Anything went. It was often a free-for-all."

The fundamental of Loughnane's revolution was that Clare became fitter than any other team around, and with that fitness came an ability to hurl faster than a Clare team had ever done before.

But there was a profound psychological aspect to their success too. Loughnane brought an energy to the Clare story that burrowed deep under the skin of opposition managers. Self-doubt passed from one opposition dressing-room to another, his team re-setting the terms of physical engagement.

It was an unforgettable time, the force of one man's personality essentially forcing the rest of hurling to reconsider how it did things. So Loughnane undoubtedly changed hurling, but by the time he left Clare, that very change had out-sprinted him technically and tactically.

If Limerick-Clare back then was a circus of emotion, today it is arguably the most structured, considered rivalry in hurling.

For the 2013 All-Ireland semi-final, Fitzgerald left Limerick confused tactically by a strategy of leaving their centre-back, Wayne MacNamara, unmarked throughout. Having coached MacNamara at Limerick IT, he knew the Adare man liked to hold his position as a number six.

Positioned

For two weeks leading into the game, a 20-metres square area was roped off at Clare training where the opposition centre-back would usually be positioned, nobody allowed direct ball into that space.

As Fitzgerald explained in his book At All Costs, "The idea was that Wayne would, effectively, be taken out of the game by keeping the ball away from him."

Two of Davy Fitz's backroom team in 2013, Paul Kinnerk and Joe O'Connor, now help Kiely set the modern Limerick constitution. And at the core of Limerick's All-Ireland win last year was an understanding that just about everything they did in battle had to be underpinned by emotional control. By the avoidance of panic.

It is the same constitution Davy Fitz believes in and still one espoused by Moloney and O'Connor in Clare. The key is in marrying that control to huge intensity.

Bugler remains hopeful that Clare will do that tomorrow.

Whilst conceding that near misses won't ever offer absolution, he senses people in the county are too quick to forget how close (Aaron Shanagher's Killinan-end shot hitting the post) Clare came to edging past Galway into last year's All-Ireland final.

"We do seem to forget that in Clare," says Bugler. "The fact that we were a whisker away from getting to the All-Ireland. But then, last year was funny. Clare were within the width of a post of beating Galway, but also within the width of a post of losing to Tipp in Munster and being knocked out.

"The margins are so tiny today, a stroke of luck can go an awful long way. But, listen, Clare have no other option but to really go for this. Otherwise, things will be out of their control. So. it's a must-win game for both teams now. And make no mistake, Clare believe they can win."

The key may be in holding their nerve, not losing it.

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