Munster Senior Championship Semi-Final
Clare v Limerick @ Semple Stadium Thurles,
Sunday 4pm (James McGrath, Westmeath)
If the Cork v Tipperary opening spectacle whetted the appetite in terms of derby fare, then the almost tribal rivalry between Clare and Limerick could well sate those cravings if that form book is replicated this Sunday.
It’s certainly much more than a game, more an utterly unique derby simply because of it’s continuous ability to unearth a different winner every time the neighbouring counties have clashed at championship level over the past 25 years.
12 clashes since 1991 have all gone a different way but if Clare are to finally break that spell with a second successive victory this Sunday, it would be seen as the most significant result in these side’s development path that is centred around burgeoning underage success this decade.
So what are the major factors that will separate these familiar acquaintances this Sunday?
Clare’s 0-19 to 0-15 All-Ireland Qualifier victory over Limerick last July spelled the end of TJ Ryan’s three year term in charge, with Davy Fitzgerald subsequently following the Garryspillane man following Clare’s disappointing quarter-final exit to Galway.
And therefore it almost seemed inevitable when Clare looked to their most successful managerial duo of Donal Moloney and Gerry O’Connor while Limerick opted for 2015 All-Ireland Under 21 winning manager John Kiely to take up the reigns in Limerick.
Kiely knows all about Clare, having been a selector under John Allen for the All-Ireland Semi-Final meeting between the counties in 2013 while also directly facing Donal Moloney in the Munster Under 21 Final two years ago when Kiely’s men finally broke Clare’s three year hold on the title.
Add in the fact that Paul Kinnerk and Joe O’Connor are also part of his managerial ticket and Limerick will never know more about an opponent as they do the Banner this Sunday. Kinnerk in particular is fully aware of exactly what makes the majority of these Clare players tick having spent six years building the Banner brand through minor, Under 21 and senior.
However, having a unique insight and actually having the players to both curb and counteract them are entirely different things as with a full hand to pick from, Clare have an abundance of match winners in their top eight alone.
With regards to the fall-out from the National League, Clare will also take a lot more from their campaign than their counterparts. Operating in Division 1A, Clare got six hugely beneficial and competitive matches under their belts despite having a double figure absentee list for long periods of the competition. It allowed newcomers Ian Galvin and Jason McCarthy to prosper, David Fitzgerald and Aron Shanagher only cemented their importance to the side while the re-emergence of Seadna Morey as Clare’s most important defensive cog was also a welcome boost.
Limerick’s frustration in remaining in Division 1B for an eighth consecutive season was confounded by the fact that they were seemingly doomed after their opening round to Wexford, a result that effectively left them hamstrung for the remainder of the campaign.
That said, there could be up to six changes from last year’s team that faced Clare, with Mike Casey, Alan Dempsey, Will O’Donoghue, David Dempsey, Gearoid Hegarty and Kyle Hayes featuring heavily in Limerick’s National League campaign that finished on a sombre note at the semi-final stage with a 1-21 to 1-11 home defeat to eventual champions Galway.
While Clare have yet to play their strongest side in 2017, the return of Conor McGrath and Shane O’Donnell in particular should add a real threat to the inside line. The question remains however if Clare will opt for a two-man full-forward line and bring out David Reidy as an extra midfielder or whether they go for broke and place the goal hungry trio of McGrath, O’Donnell and Shanagher nearest the square.
With Shanagher the lone targetman for much of the league, it proved easier for opposition defences to man-mark or smother the space but up against the aforementioned triumvirate, they will all need careful watching if Limerick are to keep only their second clean sheet of the season.
Add in a potential half-forward line of Tony Kelly, Podge Collins and John Conlon in front of midfielders David Reidy and Colm Galvin and Clare have never had such riches in their attacking division.
It’s equally competitive in defence where two from Seadna Morey, David McInerney, Cian Dillon, Patrick O’Connor, Brendan Bugler, Gearoid O’Connell, Conor Cleary and David Fitzgerald will definitely miss out but it’s the positioning of the spinal anchors that is the most uncertain factor.
Conor Cleary had played the majority of games at centre-back but in terms of distribution and the ability to sweep, David McInerney is the best fit but the Tulla man has been used more in the full-back line since his return.
That’s not to mention the three-way battle for the number one jersey which appears to put Andrew Fahey just ahead of Donal Tuohy and Patrick Kelly.
The competition for places has never been higher in fact within the squad but in terms of scoring prowess and more significantly goalscoring ability, Clare do have a distinct edge that should see them finally break the derby hoodoo and reach a first Munster Final in nine years.