*Peter Duggan and Mike Casey in action. Photograph: Gerard O’Neill
Some pundits felt that the hurling championship needed a good Munster Final, and they will not be disappointed, with Clare and Limerick delivering a classic. Seamus Flanagan said afterwards it was a game for the ages, and in keeping with his performance, he was spot on.
Limerick completed their four in a row bid, after being put to the pin of their collar by an excellent Clare team. Limerick’s physicality and fitness, aided by the depth of their squad, got them over the line in the end. It was a gutting result for Clare but there was nevertheless a huge sense of pride around the performance and the team.
Wet conditions were a talking point in Semple Stadium before the game: who would it suit and why. But it certainly didn’t impact the game or detract from the spectacle. Clare got off to the better start and went three points up early. It was a ferocious start amid massive hits on both sides. Clare didn’t allow Limerick any time to settle on the ball and really disrupted their flow early on. This forced Limerick to deliver poor ball into their forward line where Conor Cleary and Paul Flanagan were able to deal with everything that came their way.
The prequel to this Munster final was defined by hectic play in the middle third without much inside play. Both full back lines were on top in Ennis and I felt whichever team could unlock their inside potential would have a great chance.
Limerick achieved this through Seamus Flanagan. He tacked on an incredible eight points from play and could have had a goal to go with it. One was a real gut punch: Tony Kelly scored a wonder point having tracked down Hegarty and turned him over, before running 50 yards with the ball and putting it over at the other end. It was a huge score that should have lifted the crowd and his teammates. Unfortunately, Nicky Quaid pucked the ball out to Seamus Flanagan who had found 40 yards of space and he turned and scored at his ease.
Strangely, Limerick persisted with Kyle Hayes on the inside line. Hayes is probably the best athlete in the GAA today but is not suited to the full forward line. Paul Flanagan did an excellent job in shutting him down. It amazes me that Limerick management don’t select him further out the field, where he can collect ball 70 yards out and deliver blistering runs. For our sake, let’s hope they continue to keep him inside, where he can be somewhat curtailed.
On the Clare end, Mike Casey and Peter Duggan had another physical battle. Casey is very strong and was able to tie up Duggan on a few occasions. Peter is more naturally a half forward and it can be a difficult place to play inside when being held, but I think Peter can learn from it. He seemed to take it as a personal challenge that he needed to overpower Casey, when sometimes a little bit more guile is needed and route one is not always the answer.
The Limerick defenders are strong enough that they will not let you run right through them and if Peter could add some small movements when in possession, he could become a more dangerous inside threat. Take Aaron Gillane on the other end. Conor Cleary did an excellent job of marshalling him for most of the game, but Aaron hurt him by making lateral moves. He won possession more easily and was able to shake off the defender with little jinks towards the end of the game and into extra time.
While Clare didn’t establish a major inside threat, they did have some phenomenal performances in the middle third where yet again Tony Kelly had an excellent game. Tony’s workrate and tackling matched his brilliance on the ball. His ability to find space is incredible and was actually available more times than he got the ball. David Fitzgerald and Ryan Taylor put in brilliant shifts around the middle also. Both players are entering their prime now and their performances have all the signs of it. Their pace and comfort on the ball is a huge asset to this team and makes it very hard to pick them up.
Clare were able to put savage pressure on Limerick in possession. For most of the game they were not afforded a second to think on the ball. It was amazing that when Declan Hannon at the end of a titanic battle did get a bit of space, he was able to score from 90 yards in what most thought would be the winning point. It was a stark reminder of the class in the Limerick side and their ability if given a chance.
The game looked all but gone at that point, but the referee did give Clare a chance to advance the ball and win a side-line in the corner of the field. I certainly did not expect a score to come from it, but Tony Kelly makes the impossible look possible. It’s one thing to practice those down the field with your mates, but to be able to produce a score from that position in a Munster Final while objects are being hurled at you from the stand is quite astonishing.
Once the game entered extra time, Limerick emerged as the dominant team. They were quite obviously fitter and stronger and were able to make scoring chances far easier. Clare’s intensity dropped, and this allowed Limerick to use the ball better and pass it around our backs with far more ease than in normal time. Clare probably needed to introduce fresh legs in the half backline at this point but chose to use the subs in our forwards instead. With Tony, Peter and SOD off the field it didn’t look like we could match Limerick at that point and they did run out deserving winners at the end. Clare should take huge pride and encouragement in their performance. It should galvanise them for a big game with Wexford in two weeks.