FROM the moment the schedule of games for this season’s hurling league was published, today’s (Sunday) final group game between Shannonside neighbours Clare and Limerick was ear-marked as the tie that would decide who will be promoted to Division 1A for 2017.
Clare, it must be said, were unlucky to be relegated from the top flight at the end of last season’s league, when they lost by the minimum margin to Kilkenny on successive Sundays.
Limerick have been stuck in Division 1B for the past few years, falling narrowly at the final hurdle on a few occasions.
They made some changes to their management team back in the autumn, bringing in Joe O’Connor as team trainer and appointing Tipperary man Dinny Cahill as team coach. O’Connor is widely recognised as a trainer and he filled that role for Clare when the Banner men won the All-Ireland title in 2013.
Such is the attractiveness of Sunday’s tie that a crowd of 10,000 is predicted for Cusack Park, where the newly renovated stand will be open for the first time. Given that the Munster league final between the same counties drew an attendance of 5,000 at the end of January, doubling that figure for this clash would not be a major surprise. Indeed, the start time for the pre-season tournament final was delayed by 10 minutes to facilitate the bigger-than-expected attendance. The majority of the players who played seven weeks ago will again be in action this week.
Both teams ran up big scorelines in their last outings. Limerick were particularly impressive when putting up a tally of 6-29 as they overcame Laois, while Clare scored 2-28 when they accounted for Kerry. Limerick lead on score difference, which means Clare must win Sunday’s game if they are to take the honours and win promotion. A draw will suffice for Limerick and given the history of games between the counties, such an outcome would not be a surprise.
The Munster league final resulted in a one-point win for Clare (0-18 to 0-17), with substitute Cathal O’Connell scoring the winner. When the teams met in the championship last summer, a point was also the margin of victory, which went to Limerick on that occasion.
The expectation is that Limerick will, as was the case in the Munster league final, be without their Na Piarsaigh contingent. The Limerick champions play the All-Ireland Club Hurling Championship final against Cushendal from Antrim on Thursday (St Patrick’s Day), which means it is unlikely that Sean Dowling and Kevin Downes will be with the county side on Sunday but nothing has been ruled out.
There are a number of injury concerns for Clare ahead of the contest. Tony Kelly will be an absentee and is not expected to return to action for another few weeks. There is speculation that joint team captain Cian Dillon and Peter Duggan may be available. Darach Honan came in for the closing stages of last week’s game, which marked the return of Podge Collins.
Colin Ryan is on honeymoon, while Seadna Morey and Shane Golden are still unavailable due to injury.
It will be interesting to see who Clare will play in goals this week, having rotated the three goalies on the panel over the last three weeks. The likelihood is that Pat Kelly will get the nod.
Pat O’Connor is likely to continue at full-back, if Cian Dillon isn’t fit, and the defence is also expected to include David McInerney and Brendan Bugler. David Reidy looks set to continue at midfield, while the forward line will include Colm Galvin, Conor McGrath, Bobby Duggan and Shane O’Donnell.
Nickie Quaid, Ritchie English, Seamus Hickey, Paudie O’Brien, Paul Browne, Cian Lynch, Declan Hannon, Gavin O’Mahoney and Barry Nash are all expected to play for Limerick.
There is no doubt but that this will be a big step-up in terms of atmosphere and commitment from anything either side would have encountered in the campaign to date. Both have already booked a league quarter-final date but both want to go into that fixture with promotion secured.
Clare are, it would seem, harder hit with regard to injuries and this may prove decisive. That said, there is rarely more than a score or two between Clare and Limerick at senior level and the same is likely to be the case again today.
By Seamus Hayes, sports editor