Their minds black with the thought of what a defeat would bring, Limerick were hard and pitiless on their neighbours here.
In fact, that Clare’s Championship run still has a surviving pulse may be no more than a technical observation given the devastating scale of what unspooled at the LIT Gaelic Grounds, the All-Ireland champions calling back into colour the powerful eloquence of last summer.
They won as they chose essentially, with the disorientation of that first round loss to Cork now clearly out of the system and a game looming against Tipperary in Thurles that may well prove a Munster final rehearsal.
Clare’s complicating, convoluted structure served only to exacerbate a physical mismatch, their attempts to break the Limerick lines seldom producing anything but jolting embarrassment against a bigger team.
Worse, their puck-out strategy seemed to slip into early meltdown, as Limerick’s high press forced Donal Tuohy into seeking out risky targets at the very time the team needed solid anchoring. This plight was caught in microcosm just 10 minutes in when, taking receipt of a short delivery from Tuohy, David McInerney was blocked down and Gearóid Hegarty duly pointed.
It left the Clare goalkeeper palpably un-nerved and Tuohy then drove an 18th-minute puck-out directly over the line on the uncovered stand side.
Graeme Mulcahy pointed soon after only for Tuohy’s next delivery to drop straight into the hand of Limerick midfielder William O’Donoghue.
For all that, it would be unfair and unkind to fixate on a goalkeeper cursed to track down targets in a team being beaten in just about every position.
Limerick’s coherence was expressed in a multiple of ways: in the spatial intelligence of Aaron Gillane and Mulcahy running lines the Clare full-back line kept cottoning on to a split second too late; in the positioning of Declan Hannon as a virtual quarter-back, allowed harvest possession unchallenged in front of his full-back line, given Clare’s deployment of both Tony Kelly and Podge Collins in deep, protective roles.
But more than anything it was expressed in the huge physicality of a team that, as manager John Kiely averred, regarded the implications of defeat – eviction from the Championship essentially – as “inconceivable”.
As Kiely told us after: “The implications of defeat more than focused the mind. For us, it was an inconceivable thought, let alone a reality. There was no way we were going to let it go today that we were going to exit the Championship at this early stage.”
The edge drawn from that understanding was written all over everything they did. Clare took a half-hour just to register their first score from play, a Peter Duggan point that was never going to reset the broad terms of engagement.
That would be their total for the entire half, with all six Limerick forwards already on the score-sheet as they went to the dressing-room with a 0-15 to 0-7 half-time lead.
Duggan, to be fair, kept striving hard to find traction, but Limerick’s half-backs were in imperious mood and, once the home side survived a couple of early goal scares – the outstanding Sean Finn deflecting an eight minute effort from Aaron Shanagher, before making a brilliant block on John Conlon four minutes later – the game followed a single, cold narrative.
It was one in which Limerick hurled essentially as they wanted to; Clare left looking wan and utterly confused.
For the second week running, John Conlon and Shane O’Donnell were held scoreless, but the systems breakdown was so profound right through the field it wasn’t as if either was found guilty of conspicuously fluffing lines.
Limerick had exploded from the blocks, leading 0-6 to 0-1 inside 10 minutes, with Clare’s woes brought to an almost comedic pitch in the 24th minute as Cian Lynch briskly side-stepped an attempted jostle from Shanagher and the Shannon man almost fell over with wasted momentum.
That half ended tellingly, Kelly caught in possession on the edge of his own ‘D’ and eventually fouling the ball for Gillane to add another Limerick free.
The Patrickswell man was a constant nuisance for McInerney who protested vehemently that he’d been fouled en route to Limerick’s 59th-minute goal, Gillane wheeling almost haughtily away from the Tulla man to fire high past Nickie Quaid into the city-end net.
Soon after, McInerney was penalised for barging after another ill-fated, short Clare puck-out, as Banner supporters poured towards the exits.
The scale of the hammering means that even a win against Cork in Ennis next Sunday will not be enough to keep them in the Championship unless Limerick now take something from their Thurles date with Tipp.
“It has been a difficult week and a difficult day today,” admitted joint-manager Donal Moloney. “No matter what we tried, they seemed to be able to close us down.”
Asked about the difficulty of turning things around now after successive 13 and 18 points hammerings, he was candid: “Seriously, of course it is difficult. You can’t dress that one up. But we have got guys in here who have done great things in a Clare jersey and will do so again.”
SCORERS – Limerick: A Gillane 1-11 (7f, 0-1 ’65’), P Casey 0-4, T Morrissey 0-3, G Hegarty and G Mulcahy 0-2 each, D Byrnes, D Hannon, W O’Donoghue, K Hayes, D O’Donovan and S Dowling 0-1 each. Clare: P Duggan 0-11 (0-8 frees, 0-1 line ‘cut’), C Galvin and T Kelly 0-1 each.
LIMERICK – N Quaid 8, S Finn 9, M Casey 8, R English 8, D Byrnes 8, D Hannon 8, P O’Loughlin 8, C Lynch 7, W O’Donoghue 8, G Hegarty 7, K Hayes 7, T Morrissey 8, A Gillane 9, G Mulcahy 8, P Casey 8. Subs: D O’Donovan 7 for O’Donoghue (55 mins), S Dowling 7 for Hegarty (56 mins), D Morrissey for Hannon (62 mins), S Flanagan for Casey (62 mins), P Ryan for Mulcahy (68 mins).
CLARE – D Tuohy 6, D Fitzgerald 6, D McInerney 6, P O’Connor 6, C Malone 6, C Cleary 6, J Browne 6, S Golden 5, C Galvin 5, P Duggan 8, T Kelly 5, P Collins 6, A Shanagher 5, J Conlon 6, S O’Donnell 5. Subs: A McCarthy 6 for Golden (half-time), D Ryan 6 for Shanagher (49 mins), S Morey 6 for Fitzgerald (52 mins), J McCarthy 6 for Collins (59 mins)
Ref – J Owens (Wexford).