Unquestionably the biggest current rivalry in hurling, the stakes were raised considerably higher for Clare’s latest Munster Senior Hurling Final showdown with neighbours Limerick when opting to play in the lion’s den of the TUS Gaelic Grounds this Sunday (1.45pm).
With a Thurles rematch the most logical choice but amazingly not an option presented, whatever the full narrative of what actually occurred behind the scenes, it was a courageous and confident poker move.
Initially viewed at a national level as suicidal, it was actually the ultimate regicidal act as not only did it demonstrate that Clare have no fear of playing in LImerick’s own grounds but more pointedly possess no fear of Limerick themselves.
Considering that John Kiely’s side are bidding for an unprecedented five-in-a-row of Munster titles, it was a bold statement but one which will undoubtedly make their hosts all the more wary on Sunday.
While the result will inevitably dictate the methodology of the location decision, it does put additional pressure on the defending champions’ shoulders to perform and win The Mick Mackey Cup in front of their own home crowd.
In a season in which their fear factor has receded somewhat and only a puck of the ball separated Limerick from all four provincial rivals, there are some nagging doubts over form of key players and the fact that they have conceded far more and scored a lot less than their 2022 selves.
Clare’s round-robin statistics are skewed by the aberration of conceding 5-22 in their opening bout against Tipperary but their last three performances have highlighted that they are just as potent as last summer.
That it is their nearest and dearest neighbours Limerick that stand obstructively in their path once more on Sunday isn’t a surprise either as their three championship encounters over the past 13 months have all been unmissable gladiatorial bouts.
Level on 33 occasions, with the lead changing hands 25 times throughout that compelling trilogy, it had to take sheer necessity for Clare to finally break their Limerick hoodoo a mere six weeks ago at the same venue.
From the eye-opening beginnings of Limerick’s dominance to swat away Clare by 0-36 to 1-23 in Lohan’s first season in charge in 2020 to finally matching them physically last summer in two 70 minute draws it wasn’t until Clare’s opening haemorrhage of goals to Tipperary left them on the precipice of a championship exit before May that the spell was broken.
‘Considering John Kiely’s side are bidding for an unprecedented five-in-a-row of Munster titles, it was a bold statement but one which will undoubtedly make their hosts all the more wary on Sunday. In a season in which their fear factor has receded somewhat there are some nagging doubts over form of key players and the fact that they have conceded far more and scored a lot less than their 2022 selves.’
It was a graduation of sorts for this Clare team and a timely validation that after a 17 match unbeaten record, the Limerick ‘invincibles’ were only human after all. Since then, Clare have only grown in stature but so have Limerick who somehow clung onto their provincial crown by means of a fortunate share of the spoils with Tipperary and a minimum victory over Cork.
The only downside for the Banner is the potential loss of full-back Conor Cleary who has been a fulcrum of the Clare defence and the perfect foil for opposition chief marksman Aaron Gillane.
Cleary’s shoulder dislocation against Cork three weeks ago means that he has been embroiled in a race against time to return for Sunday’s final, with radio silence on his availability or unavailability leaving Clare supporters to sweat it out until the teams take to the field on Sunday.
His potential absence would require big managerial calls as Gillane’s ever-present threat could be the winning of this provincial decider alone.
Under 20 Captain Adam Hogan filled in at full-back against Cork but David McInerney, Paul Flanagan and Seadna Morey are other realistic options if required.
Equally Sean Finn’s loss for Limerick has been sorely felt as having been a thorn in Clare’s side from an attacking perspective, John Kiely may also need to reshuffle his pack to match-up with Clare’s fluid forward unit.
Interestingly despite the presence of Clare’s 2013 All-Ireland winning coach Paul Kinnerk in their trench not to mention Alan Cunningham, Limerick have never man-marked Tony Kelly, instead choosing to remain firm in their defensive formation which has ended up been more of a zonal shadowing. The Ballyea maestro had responded with 50 points against Limerick in his last four championship outings, more than any other side he has faced which seems bizarre considering Limerick’s dominance these past few seasons.
In fact, it’s almost double what any other player has accumulated in either Saffron and Blue or Green and White throughout those four matches, an ace that Clare will hope to unleash once more on Sunday. However, it’s all about at least emulating if not surpassing last year’s Munster Final heroics as a similarly ravenous and aggressively charged performance would trump anything that Limerick have displayed thus far in 2023.
In addition, there’s no doubt that while Clare were delighted to be back in a Munster Final for the first time in four years twelve months ago, this time nothing short of a Munster crown will suffice.
After all, being part of one of the greatest ever Munster deciders that went all the way to extra-time before Limerick prevailed by 1-29 to 0-29 was of little consolation to Brian Lohan’s side even if there was immense pride in the way that Clare performed.
Essentially, having thrown everything in their armoury at the holders, it was the mark of true champions that a resilient Limerick never flinched at any stage.
Moral victories won’t cut it this time for Clare who having been starved of provincial success since 1998, the longest wait by far of all five Munster rivals, will be determined to avoid suffering a fourth final reverse in just seven seasons.
Their destiny if not their destination is in their own hands.
Fulfilling that destiny would be right up there with even 1995’s breakthrough such has been the provincial drought. However, once senses that Clare are more thirsty than ever to open a new chapter of their history.