CLARE supporters slept uneasily on Saturday night after watching Limerick's capitulation against Offaly in the All-Ireland qualifier earlier in the evening and, as events transpired in yesterday's Munster final at the Gaelic Grounds, their unease was well-founded.
Clare had beaten troubled Waterford and disjointed Limerick to book a place in the final where they found themselves in a whole new world against Tipperary. Whereas Clare succeeded in imposing their will and physique on Waterford and Limerick, Tipperary presented them with a range of problems which they simply couldn't solve.
They made a powerful attempt to sort them out in a 12-minute burst of productivity in the second half in which they scored seven unanswered point to cut the margin to five in the 57th minute.
But just as their supporters in the 48,076 crowd were beginning to believe that a remarkable recovery was on its way to a glorious completion, John O'Brien raced onto a breaking ball from a puck-out and made an excellent first touch count as he galloped in from the left before whipping the ball past Philip Brennan.
O'Brien followed up immediately with a point and suddenly all of Clare's hard work was nullified, leaving them staring at a mighty steep cliff face again.
To their credit they tried to claw their way back up but confident Tipp were now very much in the comfort zone as they strode powerfully to a first Munster title since 2001.
It was thoroughly deserved on a day when their right to be regarded as very serious All-Ireland contenders was unequivocally confirmed. The Clare defence went into the game with a big reputation but it counted for very little once Tipperary's busy and inventive forwards worked the game plan to perfection.
Lar Corbett and Seamus Callinan were quick and direct down the middle, causing a ripple effect to spread through the Tipp attack where only Seamus Butler found it hard to make progress.
Callinan was flanked in the half-forward line by Pat Kerwick, who did well in the first half, and O'Brien who was most impressive all through. He scored 1-4 from play, Callinan landed 1-3 and Kerwick added a point, leaving Clare wondering how come a trio they felt they could dominate finished up with 2-8 from play.
Eoin Kelly did well at right corner-forward while Corbett never let up either. And if that wasn't enough to keep Frank Lohan and his over-worked defensive colleagues under intense pressure, Tipperary midfielders, Shane McGrath and James Woodlock scored 0-4 between them.
Tipperary were solid in defence too where Conor O'Mahony and Eamonn Corcoran were ultra-vigilant in the half-line while Paul Curran and Eamonn Buckley kept the locks securely fastened further in. And even when Curran had to retire injured in the 30th minute they were able to call on Declan Fanning, the 2007 All Star No 3 as a highly effective replacement.
Behind them Brendan Cummins was as solid and reliable as at any time in his long career, remaining defiant all the way to the finish line as Clare attempted to beat him for what would have been a consolation goal in the closing minutes.
He was busy in the first half too, mostly as a sweeper which, in its own way, was deeply significant. Clare dropped several shots short and when they did apply full power they were wildly inaccurate. By the 16th minute all six Clare forwards had shot wides and by half-time the count had reached 10.
It was unacceptably high and was due in no small way to the pressure the Tipp defence exerted on the Clare snipers. Callinan's goal, finished with style and power in the 27th minute after he reacted quickest to a breaking ball, set Tipperary on their way to an interval lead of 1-11 to 0-6. Their advantage should have been greater but Corbett mis-hit a glorious goal opportunity in the 29th minute.
Clare needed to make early inroads in the second half but Tipperary maintained momentum to extend the lead to 1-16 to 0-7 by the 44th minute. Briefly, it looked as if they might be headed for the sort of humiliation they endured in their last Munster final against Tipperary in the Gaelic Grounds in 1993 but, to their credit, they battled back most courageously.
Switching Gerry Quinn to centre-back improved the defence while Niall Gilligan did much better once he moved out from the full-forward line. Quinn started the revival with a point in the 45th minute and over the next 12 minutes they added six more.
Tipperary were finding it difficult to get possession anywhere and when Jonathon Clancy cut the margin to five points (1-16 to 0-14) in the 57th minute, Clare supporters began to dream.
However, O'Brien's goal a minute later punctured their optimism and settled Tipperary nerves, enabling them to re-establish a polished rhythm from there to the finish.
It really was a most impressive performance by Tipperary but while Clare will be disappointed they still have plenty of positives to work on. The return of Brendan Bugler, who was out through suspension yesterday, will strengthen a defence where Pat Vaughan and Quinn did well.
Colin Lynch turned in a solid performance at midfield while Gilligan, after a slow start, Tony Carmody and Jonathon Clancy were the pick of the attack. There's more in Diarmuid McMahon and Tony Griffin, while Mark Flaherty's confidence took an early knock when he missed his first free.
Scorers -- Tipperary: J O'Brien 1-4, S Callinan 1-3, E Kelly 0-6 (2f), S McGrath 0-3, L Corbett 0-2, J Woodlock, P Kerwick, H Maloney 0-1 each. Clare: N Gilligan 0-9 (6f), C Lynch, M Flaherty (3f) 0-3 each, T Carmody 0-2, G Quinn, J Clancy 0-1 each.
Tipperary -- B Cummins 8; E Buckley 8, P Curran 8, C O'Brien 7; E Corcoran 8, C O'Mahony 8, S Maher 7; J Woodlock 7, S McGrath 8; P Kerwick 7, S Callinan 9, J O'Brien 9; E Kelly 8, L Corbett 8, S Butler 5. Subs: D Fanning 7 for Curran (30), M Webster 7 for Kerwick (48), H Maloney 7 for Butler (53), B Dunne for Woodlock (66).
Clare -- P Brennan 7; P Vaughan 7, F Lohan 6, G O'Grady 5; G Quinn 7, C Plunkett 5, P Donnellan 6; B O'Connell 7, C Lynch 8; T Carmody 7, D McMahon 6, J Clancy 7; T Griffin 5, N Gilligan 7, M Flaherty 5. Subs: D O'Rourke 5 for Flaherty (26), G O'Connell 6 for Plunkett (41), F Lynch 6 for O'Rourke (60), B Nugent 7 for Griffin (63), M Murphy for McMahon (68).
Ref -- D Kirwan Cork)