Vincent Hogan: Men in green edge it on day of heat and chaos
Shannonside derby sends Clare to back door but very much alive
All day, the sun barely peeked out from behind an obdurate, grey veil, but Thurles tingled with an independent heat yesterday.
Ready or not, the wild, riotous ceremony of Munster hurling came swinging hard into the senses here and, if it delivered Limerick into a home semi-final against Tipperary next month certain to appeal to the carnivores in their midst, it also left a lingering suspicion that Clare could yet have a rewarding summer.
Just now, Davy Fitzgerald tends to meet us with that frown of a man who keeps being dealt one card shy of a Royal Flush. His team has not won a championship game since the 2013 All-Ireland final replay, yet even the player most responsible for their pain yesterday, Shane Dowling, was inclined to interpret this as a game faintly misrepresented on the scoreboard.
A disputed free from the Na Piarsaigh man just over an hour in proved precisely what separated the teams at the close of a contest wrapped up in all the flaming energy and emotional chaos you come to expect of these Shannonside quarrels.
"Well, the first thing I have to sum up, because if I don't sum it up 'The Sunday Game' will, the free above now... it should have been a draw game I suppose," said Dowling with remarkable candour (TV images actually seemed to suggest the score was good). "But that's the way your luck goes. Limerick (minors) got done in Croke Park with Hawk-Eye, so maybe we deserved a bit of luck."
The game had all we could have asked of it without ever evolving into a thing of beauty. In the first half especially it seemed in some bronchial difficulty, a squeezed, faintly neurotic exchange, both teams playing a sweeper, yet eschewing the short puck-out, presumably through fear of spillage.
The pre-occupation with structure, perversely, led to a distinct lack of shape. It was simply heavy traffic in the middle third without any sense that the congestion had a point.
But then - on the stroke of half-time - Clare captain Pat Donnellan swung intemperately towards the face of his Limerick counterpart Donal O'Grady to tripwire an angry melee beneath the Kinane Stand. Donnellan was red-carded before he could make good his escape down the tunnel, yet that moment had the impact of a great, angry growl of thunder on a soupy afternoon.
Because what followed was epic and flawed, glorious and confused. And it ended in the sideline chaos of boards being flashed without anyone quite knowing what exactly they were meant to signify. Fitzgerald was not alone in believing that one of them had indicated there would be a minimum of four additional minutes.
As it happened, that board was subsequently explained as relating to the substitution of Limerick's Seamus Hickey, despite the injured corner-back having taken a seat in the dug-out almost four minutes earlier.
"The players thought four and I thought four," confirmed an impressively restrained Fitzgerald after. "That's why I wasn't worried. I thought we'd definitely get a leveller.
"In saying that, I thought Limerick's character today was phenomenal. I thought they fought tooth and nail, and fair play to them. It was a great game."
That it was and, more than that, one that told us some important things. First and foremost, it revealed 19-year-old Cian Lynch as a debutant who might just electrify Limerick's summer. This son of Patrickswell and nephew of the great Ciaran Carey had an extraordinary introduction to senior championship.
Described as "a gem" by Limerick manager TJ Ryan, he exposed Domhnall O'Donovan to the kind of afternoon that had Clare folk peering through the cracks in their fingers. To be fair to O'Donovan, David McInerney didn't fare that much better when Fitzgerald made a switch. For, in Lynch, Limerick have a young man seemingly born to perform at this altitude.
His 17th-minute flick over O'Donovan's head drew great olé roars from the Limerick throng. The kid, patently, has a grasp of show-time.
But the game told us too that Shane O'Donnell has not lost his. This was O'Donnell's first championship start since he pulled on that cape in September of 2013 and wrote a story that touched the heart of every romanticist outside Cork. O'Donnell was outstanding here, despite often scrapping for unpromising aerial deliveries.
Limerick looked to have reached safe harbour when Graeme Mulcahy pulled first time to the Killinan End net after Patrick Kelly failed to adequately intercept an underhit Dowling effort for a point. That goal gave them a six-point advantage, but Fitzgerald's introduction of Aaron Cunningham all but set the game ablaze.
The Shannon flier's goals in the 54th and 64th minutes came either side of a Seanie Tobin red card after the Limerick substitute's first and only act of the day was to shunt the butt of his hurley into Pat O'Connor's midriff. It made for a rollercoaster ride to the finish, another Limerick substitute, John Fitzgibbon, nailing the last score of the game with two minutes of normal time remaining. That said, it had been a day of contradictions.
Limerick won without getting a single score from their selected half-forward line, leaning heavily on Dowling's 0-11 from placed balls. All 2-6 of Clare's second-half total came from play. In total, Limerick had just four scorers from play; Clare seven.
That said, only one throng was left singing at the end, albeit the supporters in green have not always been quite as universally supportive of their players. Some of the background noise in Limerick was, after all, borderline ugly after yet another underwhelming league campaign.
"Listen, I'm sick to the head of people going on about Limerick in the league and the sooner they realise it the better," suggested Dowling after.
"They can shout year in, year out about Limerick this and Limerick that and they can tweet all they like and they can abuse all the players they like. I've said it last year, I've said it the year before, but it's not working and the sooner they row in behind us the better for them."
There is a theory that the back-door route even facilitates the Banner better now as they get the likes of Brendan Bugler and Conor McGrath and, potentially, Colm Galvin back on board. Tony Kelly pulled up with a leg injury in the dying flurries here.
Clare have six weeks now to re-calibrate their year; Limerick have four to get ready for a Tipp team they've taken down these last two Championships.
Maybe a mixed blessing for both.