Clare v Limerick
@ Cusack Park, Ennis
PLAY it again Clare. Do unto the 2017 championship what you did so well in 2016.
What better tribute to mark the 100th anniversary of Clare’s only All-Ireland final appearance by building on the championship achievements of last year.
Much easier said than done of course, but with the spirit willing and Clare’s graph having risen so much over the past few years there’s every reason to hope that the side will be full of confidence and can build some more.
The county’s championship campaign may have ended at the All-Ireland quarter-final stage last year, but in many ways Colm Collins’ side were a story of the summer as they made it back to Croke Park in championship for the first time since 1992.
Fellow perceived minnows Tipperary were there with them, but they would have had more than a few outings there since Clare’s last appearance, while Limerick were also there a few years back, so for Clare it was huge.
The run of victories against Laois, Sligo and Roscommon in successive weekends gave Clare an exposure they hadn’t garnered since July and August 1992, while along the way it became a landmark year by dint of playing those half a dozen championship games in a season for the first time ever.
Now to do it all over again — to embark on a similar adventure with Croke Park being the long-term goal once more, not in a nod to the history of 100 years ago and that All-Ireland final appearance against Wexford, but by way of continuing their climb up the ladder.
Victory over Limerick to start over again will be expected, but it will be hard won, just because another nod to history tells us so.
Last year Clare came into the quarter-final tie in the Gaelic Grounds on the back of a thrilling Division 3 final victory over Kildare from a campaign that saw Limerick relegated to Division 4 with just one point to their name.
That the two teams were going in the opposite directions in the league counted for little come championship, with Clare having to recover from a very slow start when they only had one point on the board after 15 to eventually prevail by three points.
It’s a word of warning, not that Clare need it of the great levellers that Clare v Limerick championship clashes are, whatever rung in the league ladder pecking order they might find themselves in at the time.
So it will be once more.
Limerick won the McGrath Cup meeting between the sides in January, being full value for the 2-13 to 2-9 victory before they were competitive against Kerry in a final that went to extra-time before the blue bloods eventually prevailed by four points.
However, just like McGrath Cup has little relevance to league football, it’s safe to say that league football has even less relevance to championship, which can be either a great leveller or else the complete opposite where the gap grows substantially.
Where Clare and Limerick are concerned everything points to the former — with the habit of a lifetime being that there’s little to choose between the sides, even if Clare will be firm favourites.
Limerick are building again under Billy Lee, but while the youth policy into the side by his predecessor John Brudair continues they still have a hardcore of players of experience there.
Keeper Brian Scanlan and full-back Johnny McCarthy are bulwarks of the team at the back, while Ger Collins, captain Iain Corbett and Seamus O’Carroll provide the seam of experience further afield.
Ian Ryan missed the entire league campaign, but is now back in harness and provides the Shannonsiders with an extra option and cutting edge up front, even if he only has 20 minutes of club football under his belt, while the free scoring Danny Neville is their answer to Eoin Cleary.
Limerick’s young colts proved last year that Clare’s loftier reputation didn’t faze them, but the fact that the home side are forewarned will strengthen them and their experience, greater cutting edge and belief from last year should be decisive.
But as ever, it will be a close run thing with the familiar routine of kick of a ball being between them playing itself out before Clare prevail.