Sometimes it’s hard to be a Limerick hurler. Well actually, most of the time, it’s hard to be a Limerick hurler. For the majority of the last 45 years, or, if you’re going to be harsh, the last 79 years, the landscape of hurling on Shannonside has been far from bright.
In the past 2 years or so, all that has changed. Take the likes of Aaron Gillane and Cian Lynch for example. Exceptional hurlers both, their roll call of success over the past 24 months has been near unprecedented within the county.
They started out with an under 21 All-Ireland in 2017. That was followed with an enormously successful 2018 including their first All-Ireland senior title in over 4 decades. They then added a clinical National league final victory this spring. After that, the county reached the Munster final and gave one of their all time great performances in clinically disposing of Tipperary in their home ground.
So far, so excellent. The side had had unparalleled success and were, you may think rightly, scorching hot favourites for the All-Ireland semi-final last Saturday. But did it all become too much? Now I’m not privy to what goes on inside the Limerick camp but I can’t help thinking that all of that may have got inside their heads a little. Even if they did everything in their power to block it out, the intoxicating rush of 2 years near constant success, must have somehow clouded their judgement to the onrushing train coming down the tracks.
We do this all the time with All-Ireland champions. Tipperary won the All-Ireland final convincingly in 2016, and therefore seemed nailed on to follow up their success the next year. Galway conquered all before them in 2017, and were expected to do something similar last year. And perhaps Limerick weren’t as favoured at the start of this season as the other two, but given their awesome spring form and Munster final romp, they were almost unbackable coming into last Saturday.
That’s not to dismiss what Limerick have done over the past couple of years or even say they will not go on to prove their greatness in the next few years. What it is saying is that it’s exceptionally difficult for a side to put back to back All-Irelands. Over the last 30 years, ever since Galway in 87+88, the only teams who’ve won 2 in a row have been Kilkenny and Cork. Even Tipperary, a county with a golden tradition and some of the greatest hurlers in history have found it exceptionally difficult to follow up their success. Take a team from a non-traditional county, like Galway or Clare, who’ve ended a long drought, and it’s next to near impossible.
Only Kilkenny, and Cody in particular, have managed to keep the players at that extremely high level of motivation year on year. You win an All-Ireland in Kilkenny and the prevailing mood is one of “So? Henry’s won 10. Tommy, JJ and Noel Hickey have won 9. What makes you think you’re so special?” Kilkenny’s victory last weekend would have been impossible without the experience and know-how of the likes of TJ Reid and Colin Fennelly. Yet it would have been equally implausible were it not for the hunger and tenacity of Huw Lawlor, Paddy Deegan, John Donnelly and Adrian Mullen, all young hurlers seeking their first All-Ireland medal. And obviously, it would have been inconceivable without Cody. It’s his 21st year and, possibly, his fourth different Kilkenny team, but the dynasty shows no signs of abating.
There’s also the not inconsiderable fact that the 4 week gap between games is a massive drawback. No team in recent history, with the obvious exception of Kilkenny, has really managed that break effectively. Over the last 13 years, only 3 Munster champions have won their All-Ireland semi-final. It’s a shockingly low number.
There seems to be a legitimate argument now, for scrapping the preliminary quarter finals, and replacing them with quarter finals played between the provincial champions and the Joe McDonagh cup finalists. It seems a suitable reward for a provincial winner to have a, reasonably easier draw, and not face the problems of rustiness caused by an over-extended break.
In a sense you could understand Limerick’s over-elevated levels of belief. Take a look back to that 2017 All-Ireland under 21 win in Semple Stadium against Kilkenny. It was a convincing win and the starting 15 featured 7 of those who played last Saturday. So those players went from beating Kilkenny at under 21 level, to overcoming them at senior level in the championship last year, to hammering them in this year’s National League. Given the formline, they had every right to be confident they would beat Kilkenny last Sunday. But the line between confidence and complacency can often be very slim.
A thought occurred during the game last week that this was almost exactly a replica of the All-Ireland final of 2006. The All-Ireland champions, who were seeking to reinforce their superiority, were coming up against a young Kilkenny team with it all on the line. Back then, there was even a suggestion that Brian Cody might lose his job if Cork completed the 3 in a row. While it’s impossible to think of such a scenario now, another defeat last weekend would have extended his All-Ireland drought to 5 years, by far the longest of his reign.
In the mid 00’s the talk amongst the Cork camp was of the county going for “5 in a row”, not just 3. It seemed absolutely inconceivable, particularly to the hurlers themselves, that they would lose at any stage. Yet Kilkenny ripped into their illustrious counterparts with a manic intensity from the outset. To this day many of that side: Aidan Fogarty, James Ryall, Richie Power etc, speak of it as their favourite All-Ireland victory. You can see the parallels in how Kilkenny tackled like dogs for Adrian Mullen’s point in the 10th minute last week, to the Henry Shefflin point in the 15th minute of the 2006 All-Ireland. Savage intensity, work rate, a spirit that can never be broken. All the Brian Cody trademarks were over his latest victory.
Men like Huw Lawlor, Paddy Deegan, John Donnelly and so forth had, inconceivably as it may seem for Kilkenny hurlers, grown accustomed to losing to Limerick. Last Saturday was their way of fighting back. Does that mean that this Kilkenny side is automatically superior to the Treaty men? No. But were they hungrier and sharper last week? Absolutely.
Not only were they superior, they were so by a considerable distance. Of course, the last minute 65 that was not given to the All-Ireland champions was an officiating breakdown, but hand on heart, could many Limerick fans have genuinely claimed they deserved a second shot? Considering they had been granted a soft looking penalty and a number of dubious frees over the course of the game? The free awarded against TJ Reid for overcarrying in the latter stages of the first half, automatically springs to mind in that regard.
It was also a victory for Leinster hurling. In the post match analysis on RTE Cyril Farrell argued curiously “We all love the Munster Championship because the games are even….” Eh, were you actually watching the Munster Championship this year Cyril? Because if you were, you will know that was not at all the case. Now I like Cyril Farrell and I respect his achievements, but in this year’s supposedly “even” Munster Championship, 6 of the 11 games were won by margins of double figures. In the, apparently less even Leinster Championship, only 3 of the 11 games were won by figures of 10 points or more.
Over the last 2 years, but particularly this one, the standard of the Leinster Championship amongst the top 4 teams has been exceptionally high, and extremely competitive. From whenever Galway came into the Leinster Championship in 2009, they must have known that in order to have any chance of competing with the incumbent champions, they needed to match them physically. It took them a few years, but by the time of the mid 10’s they had eventually got there.
It was the same with Anthony Daly’s Dublin who, with the likes of Conal Keaney and Liam Rushe, were never going to be found wanting in the physical stakes. Then when Davy Fitzgerald took charge of Wexford, it was obvious their strength and conditioning programme would be taken up a notch. What you have in Leinster nowadays is basically 4 versions, to varying degrees, of the Cody side of the late 00’s. Getting out of the province is as much a battle of steel, as it is of skill.
In Munster meanwhile, the Tipperary team of the early 10’s still appears to be the template. So while the skill level is exceptionally high, the physicality just does not match. Do you think, for example, the current Galway team would have failed to get out of the Munster championship this year? Well, they would certainly have beaten Waterford and I would have fancied them to have taken care of Clare and Cork also.
It was very tempting post Leinster final (including for this columnist) to say that this Kilkenny team was in decline and had no real chance of progressing further in the championship. What we reckoned without is that it would be probably be a lot easier for Kilkenny to play against the likes of Limerick, and particularly Cork, than the full on suffocating stranglehold of a Davy Fitzgerald defence. Notice for instance, how much hay Colin Fennelly has made in the past 2 games compared to his struggles in Leinster. Were it not for Wexford’s inexplicable collapse in the last quarter last Sunday, we would be looking at a repeat of the Leinster final. As it is, Kilkenny in general, and Fennelly in particular, may relish the opportunity to face a less physically demanding Tipperary defence.
That’s not to say Kilkenny are guaranteed of victory. There are still deficiencies with this team. Their midfield lacks experience and a bit of guile, their bench looks reasonably bare, and Richie Hogan’s inability to last more than 50 minutes is a concern, but for grit, work rate and determination, they are still a cut above all others. They may not be favourites, but never back against the the Cats when they’re underdogs. Getting to an All-Ireland final with this team would be called a miracle for many other sides. With Kilkenny, you just call it Cody.