The build-up all too often overshadows the spectacle in sport. This was in evidence in Cusack Park in Ennis on Sunday afternoon. The hype surrounding the game was unusual for what was, in essence, a Munster championship semi-final. The pre-match carnival atmosphere was akin to a Munster final, or a later stage in the championship. But, such is the effect the new hurling championship format has had, there are fewer Scrooges uttering a “Bah Humbug!” about the format of this long-heralded sporting event.
Regrettably, the game itself did not live up to expectation, though it is fair to suggest that it would have taken a truly epic encounter to justify the arguably unfair pressure placed on the players to deliver a performance of such magnitude, five weeks into a grueling and intense campaign.
The first half was tense, tight and not lacking in excitement. Clare played into the East Terrace side, aided by a strong breeze, and undoubtedly came by scores easier. The sharp Peter Duggan was unerring on placed balls, while John Conlon, Tony Kelly and Shane O’Donnell looked dangerous every time the play was brought into the Limerick 21-yard line.
To their credit, the Limerick full back line were solid and stood up against frightful pressure in the opening 35, given the volume of ball being rained down. There was a feeling amongst the Limerick faithful that this would be a game of shadow-boxing, and emerging from the first half still in the game should be enough to pull the result out of the hat.
Alas, the emerald bandwagon in all its flared glory came crashing to an immediate and startling halt. The dismissal of Tom Condon was indisputable, given an unnecessary strike. In bizarre circumstances, David Reidy was also dismissed, despite a lack of clear evidence of his crime. The standard of refereeing has rightly come into question in recent weeks, but it has to be said that on this occasion, the main official took the advice of his umpires in producing the second red card.
Perhaps the time has come to acknowledge the increasingly important role of umpires in the inter-county game especially. Surely they play a bigger and more conclusive role than that of the official linesmen? A promotion in terms of having the more experienced officials in some of the most important locations on the fields might benefit the game as a whole in terms of quality officiating.
Getting back to the game itself, it was over as a contest with ten, if not fifteen minutes to play. There can be no doubt that resuming the game with 14 men-benefited the Banner men more, and the Limerick tactic, though undoubtedly made in the best of faith, to persist with the two-man full forward line to counteract the effect of the Clare forwards, did not work. sDonal Tuohy hit puck out after puck out to either his corner backs or half backs, who always had a man free. This was not the main issue for Limerick. It was the second ball out where they met their demise. With Shane Dowling left practically alone in the full forward line, the Clare defence had ample time to pick out a runner in the middle third, which formed the basis for attack after attack. This would not have been the killing of the game, had the Limerick offence been able to counteract with scores of their own, but a total of 0-6 in a wind assisted second half will win very few senior championship matches.
All that being said, the silver lining for this promising Limerick side is that the weight of expectation has been lessened somewhat, which is no harm for a side this young. They have a break now, and look forward to meeting the Joe McDonagh victors, and, if victorious there, a meeting with Galway or Kilkenny to evaluate where they truly stand in the 2018 rankings.
For Clare, they have emerged as serious contenders, and will go into the Munster Final even possibly as slight favourites. The prize of an All-Ireland semi-final is huge. On the results to date, one cannot argue but the two best teams are contesting the final, and hopefully they will deliver a showing befitting of the championship as a whole, which has, to the GAA’s credit, managed to re-instate the do-or-die aspect of the old knock-out style championship, while also ensuring each county gets a fair crack at the whip.