Before the Clare-Limerick game even began in Ennis on Sunday, Conor Cleary and Kyle Hayes were going at it. Seconds after the ball was thrown in, Gearóid Hegarty and Patrick O’Connor were rolling around on the deck.
The atrocious conditions created the propensity for more ferocious contact and combat, but off-the-ball skirmishes continued to break out around the field throughout the 70 minutes.
That tension was even evident on the line. In injury-time, John Kiely was remonstrating with officials over a refereeing decision when he found himself near the Clare dugout.
Seánie McMahon, the former inter-county referee, but who has been Clare’s head of team-logistics for years, told Kiely to get back up to his own area. Kiely refused before exchanging words with Clare’s joint-manager, Gerry O’Connor. Just like the players on the pitch, neither side wanted to back down.
Kiely rightly said in his TV interview afterwards that, despite the rivalry, there is great respect between the players. There is but, while there isn’t the same bad blood or animosity that defined the Clare-Limerick rivalry in the 1990s, there is a real serrated edge between these two groups now.
It was a different time, with a vastly different group of characters, but one of the reasons Clare-Limerick league games were such epic contests between 1996-’99, was because Limerick resented the fact that Clare had what Limerick desperately craved. And now that Limerick have won an All-Ireland, the mood is broadly similar amongst the Clare squad.
The pain of watching their neighbours win that All-Ireland was exacerbated for Clare last year after having beaten Limerick by 11 points two months earlier. It may not have been reflected on the scoreboard, but Clare had also comprehensively beaten Limerick in their two previous championship games in 2016 and 2017.
When some of the Clare players conversed the day after the All-Ireland final, that hurt of missing out, and the belief that Limerick had what could have been theirs, was mentioned as an absolute driving force for 2019.
With so many of the current Clare players hailing from south Clare, right on the border with Limerick, it was an even longer winter for them.
Not having beaten Clare in the championship since 2015 is a huge motivation for Limerick. They were desperate for a crack at Clare after last year’s hiding. It’s never easy to beat the same team twice in the one championship but the dynamic between the counties is so unique now that Limerick didn’t want to meet Clare in last year’s All-Ireland final.
One of the reasons Clare-Limerick league games were such epic contests between 1996-’99, was because Limerick resented the fact that Clare had what Limerick desperately craved. And now that Limerick have won an All-Ireland, the mood is broadly similar amongst the Clare squad.
A final against Clare, who narrowly lost the All-Ireland semi-final replay to Galway, would have been a totally different mental challenge. With most of the Clare players having trained under Paul Kinnerk, and with O’Connor and Moloney having worked alongside him at U-21 level, Clare would have been comfortable with Limerick’s style and approach.
With both sets of players knowing one another so well, neither side would be able to gain any significant edge. The tension would have almost been unbearable in both camps. The pressure would have been so huge that, no matter how hard both groups of players tried, their mindsets would have been governed by a desperation not to lose to each other.
There was far less at stake at the weekend but Sunday’s meeting clearly carried that lingering tension from last year. Limerick wanted to prove they are the top dogs. Clare, needing a win to make the league quarter-finals, were keen to show that they have Limerick’s number.
Clare wanted to maintain their remarkable home record. Limerick wanted to sack Clare’s fortress of Cusack Park. This league may be a watered-down version from other seasons, but Sunday’s match was always going to be so spiky and edgy that it carried echoes of the 1990s.
The game was vastly different two decades ago but back then, Clare-Limerick was more than just a match; it was a byword for chaos and mayhem, an occasion of coiled intensity, driven by some of hurling's strongest characters at that time.
As the key characters on both sides drifted away though, the cut-throat tone of the relationship inevitably cooled. After Eamon Cregan gutted the Limerick panel in the winter of 2000, most of their key warriors departed and Clare had no gripe with the new generation.
The relationship was never the same over the following decade. During the 2000s, the counties met on 10 occasions in league and championship and the 2006 league semi-final was the only time the occasion was faithful to the old trend of Clare-Limerick games.
Not meeting in the championship between 1996 and 2006 diffused much of the tension, while the elevated status both counties enjoyed together in the 1990s was gradually eroded.
Yet the rivalry began to reignite earlier this decade when the sides met in the 2011 Division 2 final, the 2012 Division 1B final and that year’s championship. In that 2012 Division 1B final in the Gaelic Grounds, a skirmish started after Pat Donnellan was fouled and Limerick midfielder James Ryan ploughed straight into Clare manager Davy Fitzgerald on the sideline. The fire was lit, the crowd ignited, and it was just like the old days all over again.
The tension went to another level when the sides met in the 2013 All-Ireland semi-final. On the Friday evening beforehand, the Clare players were shown a motivational video in their dressing room in Cusack Park. It was loaded with footage, imagery and symbols reflecting Clare’s journey up to that point of the season but one of the segments showed the huge explosion of emotion after Limerick had defeated Cork in the Munster final, which was played out to the backing track of the song ‘Luimneach Abu’.
Written and performed by the band ‘Free Beer’, all proceeds from the sales went to a number of charities but Fitzgerald pounced on the opportunity like a lion hunting down a gazelle.
Some of the lyrics really caught the attention of the Clare players. ’40 years awaiting to bring MacCarthy back/ and when we do it this year, we’re going to have some craic.’ It got the Clare players’ blood boiling. Limerick felt close to the summit, but Clare pushed them off the edge and sent Limerick tumbling to the bottom in a heap.
There is a big difference between the psyche of a squad of players and of a county in general but the two became harder to separate when the Limerick public had a tendency to let hype envelop the county. And Clare completely used it to their advantage that day in 2013.
This Limerick team are a different animal now though. Minutes after last year’s All-Ireland semi-final win against Cork, Shane Dowling effectively told the Limerick supporters to dampen the hype and allow the team and management to focus on what was important.
Now that Limerick are All-Ireland champions, the hype and celebrations have been brilliantly managed by Kiely. Nobody is ever sure what will happen next with breakthrough champions but Limerick have handled the load superbly to date.
One of the most disappointing aspects for Clare after 2013 was their failure to build on that All-Ireland success. But they got close last year and watching Limerick go on to win the title has made Clare more pumped and driven than ever for 2019.
That was obvious on Sunday. The headline on the back page of the Clare People newspaper last week more or less summed up the mood in Clare ahead of the game. ‘All set for Old Firm.’
And Clare-Limerick certainly is once more.