The day Kilkenny clinched the back-to-back treble in 2008 fitted perfectly with the team’s ultimate performance. While Kilkenny won a fourth and nearly a fifth title, the stars aligned that September afternoon as they demolished Waterford with a stunning display of near-perfect slingshots.
It could be said that the Waterford team had peaked on the receiving end when they beat Kilkenny in the league final last year. As Limerick today embarked on a quest for a historic third straight All-Ireland whose fortunes previously took the county 78 years to amass, the question is whether the team is still gaining ground or heading for a plateau .
An indifferent league has supporters who are a little nervous, wondering if this is a sign of stagnation, and there’s an extremely challenging round-robin series to battle your way through. At the moment, only Cork counts in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, with Waterford waiting six days later. History will have to bide its time. But they’re entering a season where they could become the first hurling county outside of the big three to win three on the go.
“It’s a very fun position because you would think that if a team played three straight games they would go into the first round of the championship 100 percent confident and almost cocky,” says James Ryan, who quit at the end of the season 2017
“But to be honest people would say it’s a 50-50 match. The big talking point is what the team will be rather than what the outcome will be. Of course we have a few injuries.
“Look, there’s no point in dismissing the fact that discipline wasn’t the best in the league. We got a couple of red cards.”
So there are disturbing thoughts and no one is quite sure how to read the tea leaves. “Half the people in Limerick think it’s good that Cork lost the league final,” says Ryan, “the other half think it’s bad because if they win Cork would think they’re in a great position and you know In sport, this is the worst place to be. So it’s very unknown. But what we do know is that Cork will come with thoughts of last year’s All-Ireland final on their minds. So they’re going to come with intensity anyway.”
What then is the more compelling evidence: recent league in which Limerick won just one game and lost their first three, or last year’s league where they won the final by 16 points? Could last August have been the same point in this team’s development cycle as Kilkenny was in September 2008?
“I spoke to Munster Council’s Eoin Ryan the other day, he said around 37,000 tickets had been sold,” Paul Browne said Thursday night. “A lot of that is going down the Limerick people because I would say they feel they might need it because we’re not as confident about the result as we’ve been in recent years. You know the way you’d hear backers idle talk about three in a row? I haven’t heard a word about it. And I’d say right now that if you won in Cork, I’d take your arm off your shoulder.”
Browne ended in late 2019 and runs Limerick Academy, which is part of the county’s plan for the future as that team begins to disband. “I think we have a huge goal on our backs. It looks like Liam Cahill has spent his time building a team to beat Limerick. He has had Limerick in his crosshairs for three years. And he probably feels he has what he needs. I also think Cork with their system, their deep-lying half-forwards keeping it wide and moving through the channels, with runners, will come up with something for Limerick too.
“It just feels like the teams are figuring them out. I think a lot of teams bridged the gap too, to be honest. And trying to stay at last year’s levels is probably not sustainable either. I mean that level has probably gone down. Now this level might still be good enough. But you have to play every day now because any team that plays against you is probably able to beat you. Whereas two or three years ago other teams were really struggling with the system that Limerick had and needed Limerick to have a day off.”
James Ryan watched Limerick through the league and worked as an analyst at local radio station Live 95FM. “Did Limerick give everything to win the league this year? I would have to say no. I was at the game at Wexford Park and with ten minutes left they had Kyle Hayes and Seán Finn on the bench and they never jumped them. You would think if you were in the heat of the Championship they would have.
When push comes to shove, he tends to trust that Limerick is ready for whatever is thrown at them.
“Are you going to rate them from last year’s championship or from this year’s league? I’m more of a man who judges a team from a championship. Last year they ran through the All Ireland series, winning the final comprehensively.
“But would I be massively shocked if Cork drew a conclusion from this? Absolutely not. If Cork come along and bring that tackle and intensity, I think they’re going to be very difficult to beat.”
Tom Condon, another of the youngest retirees with a 2018 All Ireland medal, trusts the team have planned his run to be in pristine condition despite injuries. Peter Casey has been absent since last year’s All-Ireland Final, while Séamus Flanagan is also unfit.
“Limerick didn’t seem to be firing at all, but the way I personally see it, Limerick’s goal is in July,” says Condon. “You could see it in the [league] Games, they put in a pretty good performance for maybe 20 or 30 minutes in the first half and they tried so hard they ran out of breath, you could see their skid and their touch was wrong. Personally, given my long history of involvement, I wouldn’t worry. Especially this year, when the Munster championship has returned to a league basis, it’s more of a marathon than a sprint. You must move toward the final steps.”
In the first league game against Wexford, they led by a point at half-time. They also led at half-time against Galway, but Gearóid Hegarty’s red card changed the course of the game. After losing to Cork, they led Clare by two points at half-time and ended in a draw, with Aaron Gillane sent off late in the game. Flanagan was sent off in the Cork defeat before the team had their only win against Offaly.
Limerick took just one point from their first three games in last year’s league but still bounced back to win the All-Ireland.
“Ideally, you want a little bit of shape to come in,” says Condon. “It’s hard to just turn it on, it’s not like a faucet. That’s the concern, will they have done enough internally to prepare them for the pace of the championship.”
Browne admits he is “extremely nervous” about going to Cork. “The concern is not with Limerick and what they bring to the table. The concern is for the other teams, we’re not sure how far they jumped to close the gap. That’s the feeling in Limerick now.”
Three in a row? Not the time or the place. “The only three that count at the moment is being in the top three in Munster,” as Browne puts it.
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