"Sugar town has turned so sour.."
- Paul Weller ‘Woodcutter’s Son’
There is a resonance in Weller’s words that must ring true for a contingent of Limerick followers today. The sweet relief of provincial success only hastens to bitter the disappointment they will feel at their own undoing on the national stage. It would be inaccurate to assume anyone thought the hard work was behind them, but beating Tipperary and Cork must have seemed ample preparation for Clare. Alas as this year’s Championship continually destabilises the understanding of ‘favourite’, the Munster Champions will enter an earlier than expected hibernation on the inter-county scene for now. They are treading the correct path but perhaps some harsh lessons learned against Clare will make their journey more easy passing next time round. Until then, September 8th will be the only show in town.
It has been to the delight and the scorn of my summer that following Limerick has led me to witness Cork and Clare first hand. It may appear sour to suggest that Cork, the team Limerick bet convincingly in the Munster final a month ago were in fact the better side to watch. It has been to the pleasure of many Rebels that they claim Cork have made strides since losing to Limerick, but truthfully had Patrick Horgan not been sent off at the end of the first half, Cork would not have appeared quite as vulnerable in the second. This is a Cork team that bet their All-Ireland counterparts Clare by eight points before ever facing Limerick. As extremely well as Limerick played on July 14th, to suggest that Cork underwent some transformation that didn't appear necessary on June 23rd when they bet Clare, but evident on July 28th when they bet Kilkenny or on August 11th against Dublin is derisory to all parties involved. Without deriding the incredible work they have done to get this far – their first final since 2006 – Cork are Cork and they are always to be feared. Nobody will know this more than Clare.
What separated Clare and Limerick so tellingly yesterday was a goal. Ultimately, Clare secured one while Limerick could not. It was Limerick’s third outing in a Championship that has rendered only one goal. Credit must go to Clare’s goalkeeper Patrick Kelly. His early save from an incoming Sean Tobin effort was exemplary. Clare’s admittedly scrappy goal a few minutes later made the save all the more important in the grand scheme of seventy minutes. On another day, Tobin may have scored and Declan Hannon may have pointed a number of frees that he missed, thus enabling Limerick to open up a lead that on Sunday could well have been theirs. However, Clare too got their chances and their clinical finishing allowed them to enter the break with a lead that would be ultimately unassailable. The second-half – barring an immediate but brief Limerick resurgence – was the benefit Clare could reap from their first half endeavours. Limerick were continually kept at a safe distance while Clare focused themselves defensively and maintained a steady if not abundant rhythm of taking their points when opportunity arose. From a Clare point of view it was surely joyous, for Limerick, utterly heartbreaking.
Comments regarding the managers appear routine. John Allen’s services to Limerick hurling will undoubtedly continue. Nobody would dare allow one poor performance destroy the credibility of two great ones that delivered the Munster title. His future is his own, and hopefully it remains entwined with Limerick’s. If one query could be raised however, it confused me and others watching yesterday’s match as to why Allen remained on the sideline with his staff during what must have been a tumultuous half-time break for his team. Although I have no idea what option Allen usually likes to deploy in these situations – it never dawned on me to look – it appeared an unusual decision but hardly one to hang a man for. For Davy Fitz – his half time actions were probably more predictable – his performance betrays his behaviour. It became cause for laughter for Limerick and Clare fans alike when the camera would beam his sideline antics onto the big screen of Croke Park. He is a parody, a clown and a minor embarrassment to the players who serve him with far greater decorum. His continued badgering of officials for even the most minor decision against him could suggest passion, but closer resemble childishness. However, he will now take to an All-Ireland final once again. In 2008, as manager of Waterford, Davy came out the rough side of a 23-point divide. While not too much blame can be focused on him for this – Kilkenny hurled what is considered the perfect game – it will prove fascinating as to whether this experience will haunt or help him. Granted, Cork of 2013 are not Kilkenny of 2008, but with no Ken McGrath, John Mullane, Tony Browne or Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh, Clare certainly don’t match up to the team Davy had in the Deise ’08. Either way, Clare, having lost already to Cork this year, will enter the final as underdogs; the most sacred term in this year’s Championship.
On a side note, while the draw makes it a perfectly legitimate finale, it appears unusual that an aesthetically that an all-Munster All-Ireland final should not possess the actual Munster Champions. This Championship certainly proved that no team is gifted anything by divine right and as such Clare and Cork deserves their September 8th date. Yet, there is something none the less unusual about it. The introduction of the back door is as, if not more useful to the bigger counties when it comes to regenerating a challenge for the All-Ireland. The sheer number of games in the UEFA Champions League similarly caters for big teams to allow for the odd mistake to be overcome in the early stages so as to still ensure progression. Inclusion in the first place can occasionally seem ludicrous and when you consider that thirteen of the twenty finalists of the past ten Champions League finals have not even won their domestic league the year before, it puts the title of Champion into contention. Whomsoever shall win on September 8th will be a worthy, well traveled All-Ireland Champion, regardless of whatever it means.