By Michael O Connor.
The real championship was now in play with a sense of sulphur looming over nearly every camp that lost. Did national league success really matter if the championship run ended in Semple Stadium and over two weeks before the Galway races?
The runaway success against Laois answered no questions regarding the Clare make up except there was hunger to score heavily. It was pointed out by the hurling number crunchers that since the 2013 title win Clare had managed only meagre wins in qualifier games and that a statement of intent was needed if Clare were to be meaningful All Ireland contenders come quarter final stage. In front of David Fitzgerald's charges were a Limerick side that struggled past a game Westmeath side in Mullingar with suggestions that not all was ideal in terms of Limerick's preparations all season. Following the game Limerick manager TJ Ryan intimated that his three year run as manager would be under serious question as to if he would continue with the strong suggestion that he will step down in the coming days.
The continued absence due to injury of Conor McGrath was a key downer for Clare as they could ill afford the loss of their proven championship performer despite having what appeared to be a strong forward division waiting on the line.
Aron Shanagher opened the scoring after 15 seconds as Tony Kelly was left isolated at full forward by Clare at the throw in only for Shane Dowling to respond with a 70 metre seconds later. John Conlon hit the side netting after evading his marker before Kevin Downes scored an excellent effort. Darragh O Donovan added a third Limerick score after 6minutes as Clare were finding it difficult to get past the Shannonsiders half back line and were reduced to long range efforts that did not find the desired target. If anything a more motivated Limerick line and players were taking the game to Clare. The next scores came in the space of 30 seconds as Dowling (free) and John Conlon (free). Brendan Bugler cleared the ball of the Clare line as a goalward effort by Dowling was sent out for a 65 that the Na piarsaigh man scored.
Padraic Collins and David McInerney appeared to inject new impetus into Clare as Limerick faltered a little with a point apiece in the 18th and 19th minutes respectively. A huge puck out from Andrew Fahy ended with Shane O Donnell on the scoreboard as Clare were now clearly on the frontfoot. Limerick failed to score for the last twenty minutes of the first half as Clare hit nine unanswered scores in this period. O Donnell's score sent Clare ahead for the first time since the opening minute. The standard of fare was at best tedious to watch as neither side appeared capable of motivated to score a goal. Cian Dillon was the playmaker for Clare as he took 8 short puck outs from goalkeeper Andrew Fahy.
Padraic Collins and two efforts from Tony Kelly left Clare (0-9) to (0-5) in front with three minutes remaining in the first half as Limerick who were in possession of the ball often enough to score if the ability existed were just hanging on and were thankful that Clare were also unable to score with Kilkenny like ruthlessness. Shane O Donnell who was benefitting from a looser role around the forward line converted another point and it was Tony Kelly who rounded off the opening half scoring to leave Clare (0-11) to (0-5) ahead at the break.
A safe start to the opening ten minutes for Clare in the new half would see them into the last 6 was the common perception. That theory would have been stronger with a goal to aid the scoreline but that option on the day was as rare as a white blackbird. Limerick made two replacements and one of those, namely Gearoid Hegarty had the first score of the new half. Within two minutes Shane Dowling sent over another free before Tony Kelly and Shane O Donnell responded to negate the positive Limerick start.
Limerick threw off the shackles somewhat led by Diarmuid Byrnes and it did upset Clare who could not build up a bank of scores to definitively say the game was over as a contest. Tony Kelly, Diarmuid Byrnes and James Ryan added to the scoresheet by the 47th minute to leave Limerick (0-14) to (0-9) in arrears. The intervening 15 minutes was far more entertaining than the previous 45 minutes but still it would require a goal from Limerick to win the game and as Clare were matching Limerick effectively score for score it was beyond the reach for Limerick to win the game. Paul Browne, Diarmuid Byrnes (2), Shane Dowling, Tony Kelly and Jack Browne were the 6 point scores entering the final ten minutes with Clare holding a (0-16) to (0-13) lead.
The last ten minutes of normal time did have exciting moments but only two points with Kelly and Dowling each with a free on the mark as Clare hung onto the three point lead with five minutes of injury time to play. Aron Shanagher won was a fortunate penalty in the eyes of many in the 71st minute that Tony Kelly chose to put over the bar. James Ryan hit back from play before a trademark late score from play by Kelly sent Clare through as four point winners with the least amount of fuss and spectacle.
CLARE: Andrew Fahy, Oisin O Brien, Cian Dillon, Patrick O Connor, Brendan Bugler, David McInerney (0-1), Jack Browne (0-1), Conor Cleary, David Reidy, Colm Galvin, Tony Kelly (0-9), John Conlon (0-1), Padraic Collins (0-3), Shane O Donnell (0-3), Aron Shanagher (0-1). SUBS: Aaron Cunningham for Conlon, David Fitzgerald for Browne
LIMERICK: Nickie Quaid, Tom Condon, Richie McCarthy, Richie English, Diarmuid Byrnes (0-3), Gavin O Mahony, Paudie O Brien, Paul Browne (0-1), Darragh O Donovan (0-1), Declan Hannon, James Ryan (0-2), Cian Lynch, Kevin Downes (0-10, Shane Dowling (0-6), Graeme Mulcahy. SUBS: Tom Morrissey for O’Donovan, Gearoid Hegarty (0-1) for Hannon, Seamus Hickey for O’Brien, Barry Nash for Mulcahy, Alan Dempsey for English.
Referee: James Owens (Wexford).
In the preceding qualifier game Wexford created a shock of some proportion defeating Cork and the raw emotion of their supporters brought alive Semple stadium and maybe the championship.