LIMERICK will play their hurling outside the top tier again in 2013 after they threw away an eight-point lead against Clare in the Division 1B final in the Gaelic Grounds on Saturday night.
And that’s just one of the negatives. Limerick now have to fill a seven-week vacuum before playing Tipperary in the Munster championship, Clare make off with the silverware and the bragging rights after their third win over Limerick in less than three months and Davy Fitzgerald’s men also get to square up against Kilkenny in a league semi-final.
The most galling thing though is that Limerick have to ponder how they gave away an eight-point winning margin they had ten minutes into the second half. They didn’t concede any goals - instead Clare outscored them by 0-12 to 0-2 to seal a remarkable win in front of almost 10,000 spectators.
While Limerick came from behind to win last year’s Division 2 final against Clare in Ennis, since then they’ve had chances to win three big games and have ended up on the losing side each time. Against Waterford in last year’s Munster semi-final, against Dublin in last year’s All Ireland quarter-final and against Clare on Saturday, Limerick could have won. On all three occasions they’ve lost. This one will hurt as much as any of them.
It looked so good for long spells of the first half - when Limerick played most of the good hurling to go six points clear on two occasions. With James Ryan inspired at midfield and Shane Dowling and Graeme Mulcahy dangerous up front, Limerick made all the early running. They were 0-6 to 0-2 up after ten minutes, 0-10 to 0-4 up after 22 and could well have been further clear had Tommy Quaid taken either of the two goal chances that came his way.
But it was enthralling stuff that even boiled over to the sideline when rival managers John Allen and Davy Fitzgerald exchanged words and Fitzgerald was again in the middle of it when Ryan bulldozed into him minutes later. If anything, the sideline antics worked against Limerick and Clare rallied somewhat before the break and with Conor McGrath accurate from placed balls, they had the gap back to three - 0-11 to 0-8 - as the sides headed for the dressing rooms.
When the impressive Shane Dowling blasted a penalty to the net early in the second half, Limerick looked well in control. That view was only strengthened when Graeme Mulcahy and Seanie O’Brien added quick-fire points but instead of wilting, Clare faced up to the challenge.
A run of seven unanswered points had the difference back to one and although James Ryan stopped the rot with a nice point for Limerick, it didn’t stop Clare. Nickie Quaid had to be at his best to deny John Conlon with ten minutes remaining but Nickey O’Connell pointed the resulting ‘65 and sub Aaron Cunningham had the sides level soon after.
Clare went in front for the first time since the third minute when Conor McGrath pointed in the 66th minute and although Seanie O’Brien levelled matters once again, Clare had the final say and late points from Nickey O’Connell (‘65) and McGrath, with his 12th point of the evening, rounded off an incredible turnaround and sent the Clare crowd home with a renewed pep in their step.
“They just got on top of us and maintained their dominance,” said a disappointed Limerick manager John Allen after the game. “They finished very strongly but they’ve been doing that all year. We produced a massive effort in the first half and for the third quarter but probably ran out of steam.”
But despite the nature of the loss, Allen was keen to point out the positives.
“Given how poorly we performed in our first league game against them, certainly this was a much better performance and a much better game. We’re now heading into the championship (against Tipperary) in better shape.”
Fitzgerald was understandably thrilled with his side’s refusal to lie down in the face of adversity.
“We didn’t play out of our skins in the first half but that was down to Limerick and how they tackled and blocked. They were vicious but they had to be vicious after what happened to them in the first round of the league. We knew that but we still had a bit of character to come back.”
SCORERS - Clare: Conor McGrath 0-12 (10 frees), Colin Ryan 0-3, Nickey O’Connell 0-3 (two ‘65s, one free), Pat Donnellan, John Conlon, Aaron Cunningham 0-1 each. Limerick: Shane Dowling 1-7 (1-0 penalty, four frees, one ‘65), Graeme Mulcahy 0-3, Seanie O’Brien 0-2, James Ryan, Niall Moran, Tommy Quaid and Kevin Downes 0-1 each
CLARE - Patrick Kelly; Domhnail O’Donovan, Cian Dillon, Conor Cooney; Brendan Bugler, James McInerney, Patrick O’Connor; Nickey O’Connell, Pat Donnellan; Caimin Morey, Sean Collins, Enda Barrett; Colin Ryan, Conor McGrath, John Conlon. Sub: Aaron Cunningham for Morey (51 mins)
LIMERICK - Nickie Quaid; Stephen Walsh, Richie McCarthy, Tom Condon; Wayne McNamara, Donal O’Grady, Gavin O’Mahoney; Paul Browne, James Ryan; Shane Dowling, David Breen, Conor Allis; Graeme Mulcahy, Niall Moran, Tommy Quaid. Subs: Seanie O’Brien for Breen (35 mins), Kevin Downes for Moran (half time), Sean Tobin for T Quaid (41 mins), Michael Ryan for Allis (61 mins)
REFEREE - Brian Gavin (Offaly)