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Two teams who don't know how to take a step back.

After breathless derby we ask: ‘Are they Gods or real folk?’

BEFORE a ball was pucked the line ‘Are they Gods or real folk’ was belted out again and again on Cusack Park’s new surround sound system. It was part of an eclectic playlist that’s now part of the pre-match entertainment on big match days at Clare headquarters, in a welcome move away from ‘My Lovely Rose of Clare’ and more.

It’s from the old Horslips number ‘Trouble’ — the answer to ‘are they Gods or real folk?’ coming in a game from the Gods played by out two teams that don’t know what it’s like to take a step back, just as their managers don’t know either.

Always going forward, always driving and giving us everything we expected it to be — a ferocious, breathless and sustained battle from first to the last whistle. No wonder the Rolling Stones’ ‘Give Me Shelter’ was aired pitchside after it was all over — just because there was no shelter, or no hiding place, no way out.

They they were: Gods strutting around the place with camáns in hand, wielding them as they went, while us ‘real folk’ looked on from our ringside seats or standing positions, and were totally in its thrall.

Ringside, because this 70 minutes and more was a prize fight, with mano a mano battles everywhere as sporting neighbours did what neighbours do, hunting and hurling each other down, getting in each other’s faces, fighting as if their lives depended on it, fighting harder again as they reached for the stars.

Shaking hands at the end of it all, until the next day in the Munster final on June 5 when they’ll shake hands once more and begin it all over again.

This was hurling at its very best, because in a packed Cusack Park before 18,129 and two evenly matched teams, they’re no better place to be. It’s claustrophobic; it’s in your face; it’s electrically charged, as the sound of the crowd — discharged with every cut and thrust out on the field — that bounced off the corrugated iron of the shed terrace and the grandstand that needs no sound system to amplify its volume.

This is organic and sustained, from the toes and with every fibre of the supporters’ beings — the chants of ‘Clare, Clare, Clare,’ being responded to with ‘Limerick, Limerick, Limerick,’, before ‘there’s only one Tony Kelly, there’s one Tony Kelly’…… rent the air. What the ‘Gods’ got out of the ‘real folk’ that were privileged witnesses to it all.

“It was a proper game,” gushed John Kiely afterwards, “because any time you come to Ennis you get nothing less. It’s fantastic. Every time. It’s brilliant to have those contests,” he added.

“We had a big crowd and a little bit of expectation,” said Brian Lohan. “Our own supporters came in their droves and we were under a little bit of pressure to make sure we didn’t disappoint them.”

They did that and more, and Limerick did too.

This game started so ferociously that the Cusack Park pitch, which is bigger than Croke Park and Semple Stadium, seemed as small as the postage stamp that one of these years will be specially commissioned to recognise Tony Kelly’s contribution to the game of hurling.

The new luminous yellow sliotar was the prize, with heads, hands and hurleys going in from all angles in the pursuit of it. Two teams, cast and sculpted in the images of their managers in Brian Lohan and John Kiely playing as if the Liam McCarthy was up in the Ard Comhairle beside JP McManus, looking down at them and waiting to be claimed.

That’ll be for another day, but this day was every bit as good, if not better than that day will be — just because over the course of this 70-plus minutes there was barely time to get a breather, take stock and think.

The first real lull came after proceedings reached an early crescendo when Tony Kelly split the posts on the run just shy of the 16th minute. Everyone rose. This was total hurling. Tough, uncompromising, but loaded with skill.

It was a move started between the full and half-back like by Paul Flanagan after Clare had thwarted a Limerick attack and forced a huge turnover; it was taken on by David Fitzgerald before Kelly hit the point of the day, one of 16 the Ballyea colossus hit in a man-of-the-match display.

When the great Limerick team of Mick Mackey, John Mackey, Jackie Power and Dick Stokes beat Clare in Cusack Park in 1945 — one of only two championship victories they’ve had here in nearly 80 years — it was noteworthy that man-of-the-match and Limerick’s greatest ever Mick Mackey was chaired off the field shoulder high afterwards.

Clare’s greatest ever hurler should really have got the same treatment on this day, with that point being just one of many outrageous acts of genius he produced, acts that came nearly every time he touched the sliotar.

Not that Limerick sat back and admired it — proof came in their response to Kelly’s wonder score, when straight from the puck out and within 35 seconds they conjured up a chance for Kyle Hayes to flash home the only goal of the game.

It was only then, as a Clare player went down that there was a temporary break in play. We all needed it, just as we did at half-time when players on both sides were given standing ovations leaving the field and again at full-time when it was more of the same.

This was as good as anything Cusack Park has ever witnessed, and without a dirty stroke, whatever lineman or referee thought they saw when sending Gearóid Hegarty to the line.

And there was humour there too —humour and levity in the hurricane.

Twenty-six minutes in and Limerick’s David Reidy sprinted to the sideline for some advice from Paul Kinnerk — John Conlon galloped every step of the way after him, in a throwback to the way Michael O’Halloran stalked Philip O’Dwyer before the start of the 1997 Munster final against Tipperary in Páirc Ui Chaoimh as he sought Len Gaynor’s counsel on the sideline.

Kinnerk smiled, so did Conlon. John Kiely briefly wanted to get involved to push Conlon away, but the smiles, and the laughter between Kinnerk and Conlon wouldn’t go away.

This was the game. They’d soldiered together; the deep respect was there and it won out.

It did on the hurling field too. The warrior game. Until the next day.

About Joe O'Muircheartaigh

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