Limerick on the rise
O'Grady eyes Munster 'Everest' after Downes secures crown
Allianz NHL Div 2 Final
Although it was still only April, Cusack Park rattled like a boiling tureen on Saturday night, the old ground full of noise and giddy summer-like chaos.
The air was raw with pressure and tension and this frantic match seemed destined for extra-time until an excellent goal from Kevin Downes in the 67th minute provided the rapier thrust to finally break Clare's spirit and resistance. Limerick added two late points to bound over the line.
This match bobbed and weaved throughout, but Limerick's greater experience and composure told when it mattered most.
Clare were in control heading into the last quarter when they led by four points, but they failed to score for the remainder of the game as their opponents gradually hunted them down.
The home side dominated the possession stakes, winning the puckout battle 25-16, but Limerick were that bit sharper and more efficient with their use of the ball. Physically they were that bit stronger too, while they made the critical switch of the match when repositioning the excellent Tom Condon at full-back to police the rampaging Darach Honan.
Given what was at stake here, this was a really good game, especially the second half. It was played at a hectic pace and both teams signalled their intent before the throw-in. Clare took their place on the outside behind the band but Limerick muscled in on that turf and both sides marched almost shoulder to shoulder during the parade. It was an apt metaphor for the combativeness of the match.
"It was a cauldron out there," said Limerick's Seamus Hickey. "They really came at us but the prize today was huge and I think that told in the frantic nature of the game.
"Down the finishing stretch we were staring down the barrel of the gun, but you got that itch that usually only comes in a championship game -- all or nothing. We basically emptied the tank, threw the kitchen sink at it and asserted ourselves with force."
The Banner were devastated after losing successive Division 2 finals, but this young team still isn't battle-hardened enough to be able to see out games like this. They showed huge character and fight but their trend of fading out of big matches over the last 12 months is something they need to arrest.
And the concession of four goals ultimately finished them. "That was the most disappointing part, but I'm very proud of the lads," said manager Ger O'Loughlin.
"They tried awful hard. For a long time we took the game to Limerick and looked the better team, but we just needed to be more clinical. Unfortunately, it's another year in Division 2, which we could have done without."
Despite their greater experience, Limerick's key late scores were provided by Downes, who is only 19, and Declan Hannon, who played with Ardscoil Ris in last month's All-Ireland Colleges final. The pair contributed a combined 2-3 over the 70 minutes.
"What really drives this team is team ethic," said Limerick captain Gavin O'Mahoney.
"Everyone buys into that, the young fellas especially. When the chips were down, they popped up with the scores."
Although Clare were on top in the first half, they hit eight wides to Limerick's two, but the visitors blew the game open in a five-minute spell just before the interval when hitting an unanswered 1-3 to take a four-point half-time lead.
When he moved to centre-back, the excellent Pat Donnellan locked down the space Limerick had thrived in during the first half, but the outstanding John Conlon also began to exert his authority as the game progressed.
He hit three fine points from play in 11 minutes before playing the pass through for Conor McGrath's goal in the 50th minute.
A Honan point a minute later had Clare ahead by 2-12 to 2-8, but the deficit was down to one in the 54th minute when Hannon lashed the ball to the net. Paul Browne had the sides level in the 66th minute before Downes decided the match.
A year after Limerick's lost season, Donal O'Grady has steered the Treaty men back on the right road. That road now leads to a Munster semi-final against Waterford in June.
"Coming into this, I never mentioned Division 2 or Division 1," said O'Grady. "But everyone was aware of the Munster championship in the background. The challenge ahead is huge. It's like to trying to climb Mount Everest when you've been practising on Carrauntoohil."
With Division 1 status secured though, that peak doesn't seem as high now.
Man of the Match: John Conlon (Clare)
Scorers -- Limerick: K Downes 1-2, D Hannon, S Tobin 1-1 each, R McCarthy 0-4 (3f), P Browne 0-2, D O'Grady, N Moran, 0-1 each, (D Tuohy 1-0 og). Clare: J Conlon 0-4, D Honan 1-1, C McGrath 1-0, N O'Connell 0-3, (2 '65'), C Ryan (2f), F Lynch 0-2, each, L Markham 0-1.
Limerick -- N Quaid 8; D Reale 7, G O'Mahoney 7, T Condon 9; W McNamara 7, S Hickey 8, D Breen 6; D O'Grady 7, P Browne 8; D Hannon 7, R McCarthy 7, J Ryan 6; S Tobin 7, K Downes 8, G Mulcahy 6. Subs: D Maloney 6 for Breen (56), N Moran 6 for S Tobin (46), P Tobin 6 for McCarthy (56).
Clare -- D Tuohy 6; P Vaughan 7, C Cooney 6, D O'Donovan 8; P Donnellan 9, C Dillon 6, P O'Connor 8; N O'Connell 6, L Markham 7; F Lynch 8, J Conlon 9, J Clancy 6; C Ryan 6, D McMahon 6, C McGrath 6. Subs: D Honan 8 for McMahon (18), C Morey 6 for Ryan (58).
Ref -- J McGrath (Westmeath).