A turbulent couple of weeks for Limerick hurling has ended in emphatic fashion with a Munster U21 crown against reigning champions Clare in a near capacity Cusack Park tonight. After disappointing exits for the Limerick senior and minor teams in recent weeks, the onus was on the Limerick U21 team to produce a performance to restore confidence and they delivered and more. All that is good in Limerick was in full effect: guts, determination, hard work and team work.
The game started well for Limerick with a early brace of points from Dempsey and O’Donovan but Clare fought straight back and hit four unanswered points O’Donnell and Lynch to the fore for the Banner. The game ebbed and flowed and it became apparent that the two free takers on the pitch would play a vital role in proceedings. Limerick’s Ronan Lynch and Clare Bobby Duggan were unerring from place balls and both teams were extremely aware that any indiscretion seventy yards out would be punished on the score board.
Clare had their best spell of the game towards the end of the first half. With Duggan prominent on frees and Shane O’Donnell getting a little joy on Richie English inside (who was superb throughout) struck the front and led 0-12 to 0-10 at the break. Shane Gleeson capping an excellent period of pressure from Clare with a mazy run and point which lifted the home crowd. Limerick were now struggling in midfield and the half-back line were starting to lose 50/50 battles. John Kiely and management realized that tactical switches were required at the break to get Limerick back into the contest.
Cue the tactical move of the game. Kiely and management have to be applauded for the switch of the game. Cian Lynch was deployed to the midfield area, effectively playing the free role and asked to pick up ball. Ronan Lynch who was beginning to become an isolate figure on the forty was switched to the full forward position and with Lynch and Tom Morrissey further out the field had space to make the required impact on the contest.
Gearoid Hegarty who had a bright opening was called ashore early into the second half (injury) but Limerick did not miss a beat. Byrnes and O’Connell were now asserting dominance in the half-back line and credit to the Limerick full back line for stifling the Clare full forward line. Shane O’Donnell struck a forlorn figure and Ian Galvin moved further back into Clare territory which was evident of how the Limerick back line were performing.
Limerick sensing that the hosts were there for taking hit a purple patch midway through the half hitting four unanswered points. Ronan Lynch prominent but credit to Tom Morrissey for a nice point capitalizing on loose Clare defensive play. The star of the final (in my eyes) was coming to the fore.
Cian Lynch was the clear stand out player tonight, incredible work rate but what sets him apart is his play making and game management vision. The Patrickswell player distribution to setup numerous Limerick scoring chances was a joy to watch and his goal bound effort late on forced Clare goalkeeper Hogan to produce a smart save to his right hand side. The resultant 65 was dispatched by Ronan Lynch whose confidence was in full flow.
The last five minutes saw Clare attempting to force a goal but Limerick’s back line was resolute. A late Kelliher point sealed the win as Clare’s hope of a Munster U21 four in a row was going up in smoke. Clare’s only realistic chance of a goal resulted in O’Callaghan taking one for the team as Shane O’Donnell was running through to concede a free and yellow card. Fergal Horgan’s performance tonight was reasonable, attempted to let the game flow but the Clare faithful will point to a potential second yellow card on David Dempsey midway through the half when he struck the Conor Cleary with the hurl. If he was not on a yellow card, a card would have being merited.
A great win for Limerick U21 who were the underdogs going into this provincial decider. The pressure was all on Clare and by virtue of defeating Waterford (many bookies pre-championship favorites), the scene was set for Limerick to produce a stirring performance and so it proved. Galway await in the U21 All Ireland semi-final but Limerick management will be confident of progress. The back line were stellar throughout. Richie English at full-back was dominant and contained O’Donnell. The fact that Clare called ashore four of their starting forward line spoke volumes. Byrnes at wing back was at his marauding best particularly in the second half running the ball out of defense with confidence. O’Connell at half-back provided the steel and coverage for English inside throughout, astute game management. The midfield pairing of O’Donovan and Ryan were energetic and had several good moments. The forward line was dominated by Cian and Ronan Lynch but Colin Ryan, Tom Morrissey, David Dempsey and Robbie Hanley provided timely cameos to complement the star duo. Roll on mid August. Limerick yet again turn to the U21 team for inspiration and hope and get on board the bus to Thurles in mid August. Well done to Limerick players and management, great success.
For Clare, it was a bridge too far tonight. The pressure of four in a row may have weighed on some players. The Waterford performance was excellent but tonight, the level of performance dipped. Duggan’s influence was minimal from play. Shane O’Donnell tried to make the required impact but was a forlorn figure for long periods. The Clare back line struggled to contain the influence of Cian Lynch from deep positions and Ronan Lynch when switched to full forward line in the second half. Ronan Lynch put Clare’s full back line under pressure and allowed Colin Ryan to run with ball in hand to force several close range frees. Davy Fitzgerald will be pondering this result closely; no goal threat tonight and Limerick’s superior physicality was the key difference tonight. Similar failings to the senior team who were dispatched by Cork in the championship a couple of weeks ago. A long winter awaits Clare and a shift in tactical game plans and player scouting at all grades may be required to reverse a highly unsatisfying end to the intercounty hurling season.