*Tony Kelly points under pressure from Sean Finn. Photograph: Gerard O’Neill

The heavyweight clash of Limerick and Clare lived up to its billing as it played out in the colosseum of Cusack Park yesterday.

There was massive anticipation from a baying crowd, and both sets of players deserve huge credit for an incredible game. A great game also produced one of the greatest individual performances we have seen from Tony Kelly. Tony had acquitted himself well in our first two outings, but you knew there was another gear in him. We saw that in all it’s glory on Sunday when he turned on God-mode and was un markable, particularly for the first 50 minutes.

Tony was positioned on the inside line and found himself being picked up by Sean Finn, the top defender in the country over the past four years. Tony was still able to get on breaks and make himself available as an outlet, picking off scores from all angles of the field. It was obvious Tony was buzzing for this game, he made himself the centre of all things good for Clare as he took on frees and side-lines from all over the field. Limerick are the top team in the country, but with Tony in your side, you always have a chance.

The physicality of this Limerick team is hard to appreciate until you have seen them up close. They are incredible athletes and the strength which they hit you at can wear a team down over the course of a game. Limerick’s goal arose from this. On the previous play Clare had fought like dogs in the left half back position with David McInerney emerging with the ball finally and clearing it. The next puckout was hit down on top of this spot and Clare looked out on their feet as Conor Boylan rose highest to catch and ran through the middle before setting up the goal. To Clare’s credit, they did not let Limerick dominate them and were able to recover to go toe to toe with the All-Ireland champions right to the final whistle.

While Clare tweaked things from midfield up, the back seven are very much a solidified unit with starting places nailed down. Our full back line put in another incredible performance, led by the swashbuckling play of Rory Hayes. Rory is playing the game with supreme confidence. Tasked with marking Seamus Flanagan he took to it in his typical style as he plays the game with complete abandon. There was an incredible play in the first half where he collected before completely wrong-footing Flanagan and pinging a 60-yard pass to David Fitzgerald which led to a Clare attack. He is the top defender in the country this year and a joy to watch.

Similarly, Conor Cleary and Paul Flanagan put in trojan performances. Paul went down once or twice for medical attention but soldiered on and never limited the scoring opportunities for Limerick inside line. Conor Cleary has been an extremely solid performer and got the better of Hayes over the afternoon. The pressure that Clare applied out the field helped disrupt the Limerick delivery, but these three guys were excellent. They will need to do so again as Limerick sharpen their attack with the re-introduction of Gillane for the Munster Final.

The performance of the referee came under a lot of scrutiny online and on the TV broadcast. Watching the game live I felt that Limerick got frees a lot easier, particularly when coming out of defence with the ball. The main talking point was the second yellow card for Hegarty. Personally, I think Colm Lyons got this call right. The play had stopped for a Clare free and Hegarty continued to foul before leaving his hurley in on Aaron Fitzgerald. Limerick regularly do this throughout the game and it is right to be called out by the referee.

I was a little miffed to see the reaction, both online and from John Kiely. Limerick are trying to push the narrative that they are being unfairly refereed. However, in general the opposite has been the case. Limerick have gotten away with a few red card incidents over the last couple of years. When you compare the outrage at the Hegarty red to the coverage of Ian Galvin’s completely unjust red card v Cork along with his subsequent suspension it does leave one scratching their head.

Clare will have learned a lot from this game. It is the first time this year they will have played at that intensity level and to their credit, they sustained it for the whole game. Some players who struggled to get to the pace of it will be more comfortable in the Munster Final as they adjust. While you would expect Limerick to improve with the return of Cian Lynch and Aaron Gillane, it is a massive statement of intent from Clare and makes some analysts who wrote off Clare at the beginning of the year look very silly.

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