At the press conference after Limerick sauntered to the league title a fortnight ago one of the last questions came from a New York Times reporter. John Kiely flashed him a smile, extended a welcome, and said he knew he was coming. David Segal is a business reporter, with no Irish roots, for whom hurling was a faraway fascination. In the flesh this was his first match, a bland cocktail of the predictable and the pedestrian – though he kindly said none of those things.
His fine piece appeared on Thursday, tracing the Quaid hurling dynasty from its roots in the 1950s, and telling Limerick’s turbulent story in parallel. “For decades, the story of Limerick hurling was a tale of failure so filled with off-field drama and on-field defeat that it verged on farce,” writes Segal.
He caught Limerick at a good time. One of the many extraordinary things about this team is how estranged they are from their past. It is no longer a reference point, or old turf for a fire, the kind they used to light for one-off summer Sundays. Instead, they made time stop and start again. Everything that Limerick are now stands opposed to their sometimes chaotic past: controlled, deliberate, hard-headed, temperate, farce-averse; farce-proof.
In a league that was played out as a hologram, Limerick were the only thing of substance. The narrative that quickly gained traction was that all of Limerick’s putative rivals were not prepared to show their hand. In Limerick’s case, though, they have nothing to hide.
Everything about them is transparent: their system of play, their preferred starting 15, their puck-out patterns, their livid aggression in pursuit of turnovers, their obvious desire for their opponents to play the ball long, under duress. Just like other teams, Limerick hold their training sessions behind closed doors, but there are no essential secrets.
Sometimes, a bolt will need to be tightened. Their facility to stack up points like a jenga tower is so prodigious that they go through periods when goal-scoring is neglected. When they won the 2020 All-Ireland they failed to score a goal in four of their five championship matches; in retaining the title a year later, they averaged two goals a game. When they beat Tipperary in the league semi-final a month ago, they had just one attempt on goal; for the league final that deficiency was addressed, spectacularly.
They will name dummy teams, like everybody else, but they’re not hung up on pulling a card from the bottom of the deck. Tipperary were thrown off-kilter when Kyle Hayes turned up at wing back in the first Covid season, and Cork were discommoded when Hayes landed at full-forward in the opening round of last year’s championship, but they don’t trade on petty chicanery. Those marginal gains are of no consequence to them.
The raging consensus about Limerick’s prospects this summer must be how we felt about Kilkenny at the beginning of the 2009 season, when they were on the cusp of four-in-a-row too. As it turned out, that wasn’t straightforward. In 2008, their average winning margin had been a staggering, unsustainable, 15 points; a year later, that had been boiled down to five points, and with 10 minutes to go in the All-Ireland final Kilkenny were swaying on the tightrope. We didn’t necessarily see any of that coming.
But that is a weak attempt to put doubt in the jury’s mind. If you’re searching for reasonable doubt, where do you look? Clare pushed Limerick to their wit’s end twice last summer, once when it mattered, and were so exhausted from the effort that they had nothing left for Croke Park in July. Galway and Kilkenny managed to hang tough, and give themselves a puncher’s chance, but all of that evidence is 10 months old, at least.
Clare’s attack is significantly better for the return of Aidan McCarthy, after a year lost to injury, and the recovery of Shane O’Donnell and Shane Meehan in time for the championship is heartening news too, but they finished last season with an ageing defence, and a team that still revolves around generational talents that have spent a decade or more on the road.
How many times can they afford to go full tilt at the All-Ireland champions this year? Limerick’s capacity to absorb punishment and reduce opponents with their power and aggression gives them a distinct physical edge in a schedule where everybody is trying to squirrel away some energy for another day.
Take this weekend. At a preview night in Cork on Wednesday the former Waterford player Maurice Shanahan wondered aloud how Davy Fitzgerald will approach their game against Limerick. Struggling with injuries, and with Cork in mind seven days later – a game they will believe they can win – would it be in their best interests to charge at Limerick with bayonets flashing, and come away deflated? Is it possible to even regulate the temperature of a championship performance to that degree?
Do you improve your chances of taking Limerick down in a knockout match later on by increasing your exposure to them now, or not? Waterford went all-out against them twice in 2020, and Cork did the same a year later. In both cases, Limerick won more comfortably the second time.
I wouldn’t be interested in playing them at their own game— Eamon O'Shea
It will be interesting to see how teams manage the round-robin phase of the championship, now that most of them have had three spins on the carousel. One of the early truisms of the fledging system is that winning your first game is absolutely vital, when in fact losing your first game is not necessarily fatal. Clare, Dublin and Cork, twice, have all qualified after a round one defeat.
Of more significance is the sequencing. Cork’s first two games, for example, are at home, only six days apart. If they crashed in one or both of those, would you fancy their chances of picking up the pieces in Ennis or the Gaelic Grounds?
In Leinster, given the way the fixtures have fallen, Dublin have a chance to virtually nail a qualifying spot before they play either Galway or Kilkenny in the last two rounds. Whether they’re good enough to grasp that opportunity is more doubtful now than at any time since this system started, but the scheduling couldn’t offer them a better chance.
Kilkenny will recover from the league final, but the question is how good are they on their best day? They couldn’t have reached the All-Ireland final last year without TJ Reid’s towering leadership, but he’s coming back for his 15th season: how many times can they rub the lamp and expect the same genie to emerge?
Eoin Cody seems to have stalled, Huw Lalor appears to be less effective at centre back, and young Billy Drennan learned more on the last day of the league, harshly, than he had in the previous two months. They won’t be Limerick’s nearest pursuers.
And Galway? Nothing we saw during the league was designed to answer that question. It was clear from Henry Shefflin’s comments after the Limerick game in February that they had no desire to reach the league play-offs. They are probably the second-biggest team in the championship and they are not short of firepower, but all of that only gets you to the start line. In his second season, Shefflin will need to come up with something different.
The last time Limerick were in distress was in the first half of the 2021 Munster final, when Tipperary led them by 10 points. Eamon O’Shea, one of the greatest minds in the modern game, had come back with Liam Sheedy for one last tilt. A few months later he reflected on what they had tried to do.
“I wouldn’t be interested in playing them at their own game,” he said. “We had to find those pockets of space where you could do your hurling, but it’s very difficult because they are really structured, and structured really well. So, it takes more keys to unlock them. The team that finds a way to unlock them is going to need multiple keys. It’s their game now, if you like – they have the ball.”
Nobody will take it from them.