Memorable Gaelic Grounds schools clash hinted at potential in Limerick and Clare

Memorable Gaelic Grounds schools clash hinted at potential in Limerick and Clare

IN 2011, Árd Scoil Rís and St Flannan’s College met in a Dr Harty Cup semi-final in the Gaelic Grounds, which basically was the final, and as later proved, also effectively an All-Ireland semi-final.

Both teams had shown serious form in the lead up to game and the standard they produced matched those expectations. It was the best Munster Colleges match seen in over 10 years.

The teams relentlessly traded scores before Árd Scoil made a decisive push for the line in the last quarter. Two goals put significant daylight between the sides before Shane O’Donnell thundered into the game, reeling off three quick-fire points before being hauled down for a converted free to leave the Ennis College trailing by just one score with six minutes remaining.

The finale was frenetic. St Flannan’s bombarded the Árd Scoil Rís defence, but the Limerick side had taken control at the critical stage of the match and they refused to let it go. In the end, they won an epic game on a scoreline of 2-19 to 0-22.

The quality of play and standard of scoring was even more of an achievement on a soaked and soft pitch on a wet day in January. The skill levels rose above the conditions and the match was further illuminated by two exceptional individual scoring returns. Shane Dowling contributed 1-10 for Árd Scoil while Tony Kelly racked up a total of 0-14 for Flannan’s.

In so many ways, that match reflected the future for Clare and Limerick. The players involved testify as much now: Kelly, O’Donnell, Dowling, Declan Hannon, Jack Browne, John Fitzgibbon, Seadna Morey, Mark Carmody, Alan Dempsey, Peter Duggan, Jamie Shanahan. The supporting cast was just as strong.

Seven of the Flannan’s starting team, plus Shanahan from Árd Scoil, won All-Ireland senior medals just two years later. Eleven of the Flannan’s starting team have at least one All-Ireland U-21 medal. Nine of them have two medals while three – Kelly, Morey and Duggan – won three All-Ireland U-21 titles, all on the field of play.

Limerick didn’t get as many players off that Árd Scoil team as their opponents, but any comparison with Clare is futile given that golden generation and Limerick still harvested a massive bounty from that squad. It was also obvious from the beginning of that summer in 2011 that much of Limerick’s future would be framed around those players.

When Limerick won an epic Munster U-21 final against Cork that July, three of that Ard Scoil team – Dowling, Hannon and Dempsey – started the match while Mark Carmody came on.  In total, nine players from the Ard Scoil teams which won successive Harty Cup titles in 2010 and 2011 featured in that 2011 Munster U-21 final, including Kevin Downes who captained that U-21 team.

St Flannan’s are currently experiencing one of their most fallow periods in Colleges hurling but that Árd Scoil-Flannan’s game was still a precursor of what was to come, and how much the underage landscape was set to change. Between 1993 and 2008, Cork and Tipperary carved up every Munster minor title between them before Waterford finally halted that trend in 2009. But in the meantime, Munster underage hurling has been dominated by Clare and Limerick with the counties sharing four of the last five provincial minor titles, along with the last four U-21 titles.

The link between both counties has been further intertwined by the connection Clare has had with Árd Scoil. The 2010 Harty Cup winning team contained five Clare players, including the co-captain, Cathal McInerney, who came on in the 2013 All-Ireland final. When the counties clashed in that year’s All-Ireland semi-final, 15 players (nine Limerick and six Clare) from both panels were past pupils of Árd Scoil.

Because of its proximity to the city, south-east Clare has always been intrinsically linked with Limerick. That close connection between the two counties has always kept the Clare-Limerick rivalry smouldering, while the fire was constantly stoked by the high number of people crossing the border for work on either side.

Anthony Daly told a story once about getting his first proper summer-job in the Shannon Airport kitchens in 1986. Coming from Clarecastle, he had no real understanding of the attitude someone from Clonlara or Cratloe or Parteen had towards Limerick, but he got a proper education that summer on just how intense the rivalry really was. “It was savage,” as Daly termed it.

Parteen splits the border just over a mile from Thomond Park, home of Munster Rugby. Meelick and Cratloe run right along the Limerick border while Clonlara is cut off in a corner between the canal leading into the Ardnacrusha Hydro-electricity plant and the river Shannon.

Those clubs only had sporadic representation on county teams until the current generation arrived and blew that convention to smithereens. When Clare won the 2013 All-Ireland, both Cratloe and Clonlara had a whopping 12 players – six each – on the panel. Both clubs have won three of the last six senior county titles, which also reflect how the power in Clare hurling has shifted from the big traditional clubs to the south-east.

The majority of players from those clubs went to school in Limerick. Many of them understand the dynamic of the Clare-Limerick rivalry better than anyone else. So do the Limerick players who played alongside them, especially in Ard Scoil.  When the sides meet on Sunday, the memories from that colleges match four years ago will echo louder than ever.