Clare's power surge cuts down Limerick
Ryan fires Fitz's young guns to final as Treaty men pay for high error count
Clare 1-22 Limerick 0-18
All-Ireland SHc semi-final
CLARE brought their A-game to Croke Park; Limerick left theirs at home in the Gaelic Grounds, scene of their two Munster championship triumphs over Tipperary and Cork.
Therein lay the difference in the second semi-final, which did not revisit the breathtaking peaks reached by Cork and Dublin a week earlier.
Clare looked well capable of scaling greater heights if required, but with Limerick following Hawk-Eye into malfunction territory, basic efficiency by Davy Fitzgerald's improving adventurers was enough to book the Banner into the final for the first time since 2002.
The tale of two free-takers sums up a significant difference between the sides on a day when Clare were never headed and whose advantage was never less than four points after Darach Honan's scrambled goal in the 12th minute.
Colin Ryan went into the game with a reputation as a deadly sniper from placed balls and further enhanced it with a 100pc return, pointing nine frees and adding two points from play.
Limerick would have banked on Declan Hannon being equally reliable but, unfortunately for the 20-year-old Adare man, his tracking system was way off line. His problems started in the first minute when he missed a free from the right and continued until he was relieved of the free-taking duties following the arrival of Shane Dowling as a sub.
Hannon shot five wides, four from placed balls that he would normally point as a matter of routine. His high miss rate appeared to erode his confidence in general play too before John Allen decided to replace him with Niall Moran in the 51st minute.
Dowling did much better off placed balls, posting 0-6 in the second half, but, by then, Clare had set sail for home and were not going to be caught.
Their only uncomfortable period in the second half came in the opening four minutes when Dowling pointed three frees to cut Clare's interval lead (1-10 to 0-6) to four points.
Briefly, it looked as if Limerick's high error rate in the first half, which included 10 wides, might not have undermined them as much as was thought but it didn't take long for Clare to re-establish their dominance, They outscored Limerick by 0-7 to 0-3 between the 40th and 55th minutes to lead by eight, a comfortable margin which would only come under threat if they conceded goals.
However, with the Clare defence on high alert, the approach routes to Patrick Kelly's goal became so gridlocked that it was virtually impossible to make progress. The closest Limerick came to breaking through was off a free by Dowling which Kelly touched out for a '65' late on. It was all so very disappointing for Limerick, who looked edgy and insecure right from the start. And yet, they were only four points adrift after 20 minutes.
Allen and his selectors spent much of the break on the sideline discussing how to relaunch for a second half which was always going to be difficult. Clare's alignment was causing Limerick all sorts of problems, both when the ball was played long to Honan and when they worked through the channels with handpasses and angled deliveries into space.
The latter policy had yielded an early return when half-backs Patrick O'Connor and Patrick Donnellan scored a point each, while the direct route proved successful too. Once Clare got into their stride, they indulged their creative side with Ryan, Tony Kelly, Podge Collins and Honan causing all sorts of problems.
For all that, Limerick contributed enormously to their own difficulties by missing so many excellent chances, which was unforgivable on a calm, dry afternoon.
The Limerick defence had hurled superbly in the Munster championship but were much less compact yesterday, conceding 1-22, which was well above their seasonal average.
And while much of the credit for that must go to the industry and creativity of the Clare attack, the Limerick defence added to their workload by making unforced errors.
A classic example came in the 29th minute when No 2 Stephen Walsh opted to carry the ball out of defence when a long delivery would have been a much better option. The ball was knocked off his hurley for a Limerick sideline which was poorly hit and, instead, Ryan fired over a Clare point.
The incident summed up the difference between the sides. Limerick were laboured, whereas Clare were sharp. Also, Clare's ability to make space for themselves in order to give the striker room to get in his shot was in marked contrast to Limerick, who were shooting under pressure most of the time.
Fitzgerald paid tribute to his squad afterwards for the loyal manner in which they adhere to the game plan. It requires non-stop concentration but it's coming very naturally to them in a championship where their only misfire was against Cork in the Munster semi-final.
Since then, they've averaged almost 30 points per game against Laois, Wexford, Galway and Limerick, a strike rate that will give them huge confidence going into the final.
Their long-range point-taking has been especially impressive, while their overall accuracy has improved dramatically since their Munster loss to Cork.
They shot only five wides as opposed to 23 scores yesterday, whereas Limerick hit 13 wides and 18 scores. Limerick had 10 different scorers but their starting six forwards managed only 0-3 between them from play.
Limerick lost wing-forward Seamus Hickey with an injured knee in the 15th minute, which was a serious loss as his ability to drop back into defence would have been invaluable. They later replaced forwards Seanie Tobin, Hannon, David Breen and Conor Allis, who had come in for Hickey.
It all pointed to a troubled division which found it much harder to make progress than they did against Tipperary and Cork. But then the Clare defence is a formidable unit, which allows intruders very little room to manoeuvre.
Their confident mindset spread rapidly throughout the team and with Limerick making so many mistakes in the first half Clare took full advantage, building up a lead which always looked likely to be enough to sustain them. And so it proved.
Scorers – Clare: Colin Ryan 0-11 (9fs), T Kelly 0-4, P Collins 0-3, D Honan 1-0, P Donnellan, P O'Connor, C Galvin, C McInerney 0-1 each. Limerick: S Dowling 0-6 (5fs, 1 '65'), D Hannon (2fs), G O'Mahony (1 s-l), P Browne 0-2 each, C Allis, J Ryan, G Mulcahy, D Breen, T Ryan, K Downes 0-1 each.
Clare – P Kelly 7; D O'Donovan 8, D McInerney 8, C Dillon 7; B Bugler 7, P Donnellan 8, P O'Connor 7; C Galvin 7, Conor Ryan 7; J Conlon 6, T Kelly 8, Colin Ryan 9; P Collins 8, D Honan 8, C McGrath 7. Subs: F Lynch 6 for Conlon (44), C McInerney for Honan (63), N O'Connell for Galvin (67), S O'Donnell for McGrath (71).
Limerick – N Quaid 7; S Walsh 6, R McCarthy 6, T Condon 6; P O'Brien 6, W McNamara 7, G O'Mahony 7; P Browne 7, D O'Grady 6; D Breen 7, J Ryan 6, S Hickey 5; G Mulcahy 6, D Hannon 5, S Tobin 5. Subs: C Allis 5 for Hickey (15), S Dowling 7 for Tobin (32), N Moran 6 for Hannon (51), T Ryan 6 for Allis (56), K Downes for Breen (63).
Ref – J Ryan (Tipperary)