The win wasn’t a must for Limerick last time out. Now it is.

The win wasn’t a must for Limerick last time out. Now it is.
Tipperary's John McGrath with Limerick's Dan Morrissey. Credit ©INPHO/Ken Sutton

It’s 21 years ago now, but Clare’s league semi-final performance against Cork in 1998 has long been cast into hurling folklore, as much for what we didn’t do, or were supposed to have done beforehand, than anything to do with the final score.

Cork leathered us, but there was such a mystique around Ger Loughnane and Clare at that time that the story went that he ordered us to throw the game. We were supposed to have done a two-hour running session that morning. There were reports from Tipperary that Mike Mac ran us into the ground during the warm-up in Templemore beforehand.

Of course, that never happened, but we were so poor, and looked so disinterested, that if it was horse racing, we’d have all been called before a stewards inquiry. There was around 40,000 in Thurles that day because the other semi-final between Limerick and Waterford was the curtain-raiser.

That exacerbated the rumour mill because Clare were All-Ireland champions and many of the supporters felt cheated of their entertainment value. Personally, I would never go out on to a pitch and not try, especially in front of that kind of a crowd. I, and none of the other players, wanted to let ourselves down in that manner but, as a unit, we were as flat as glass.

Loughnane or Mike Mac didn’t flog us hard that week, but Loughnane put little or no emphasis on the match, or much focus on Cork in general. There was every chance that we would meet Cork in the championship — which we did — and Loughnane was just trying to keep us fresh, and keep our powder dry.

And when we met Cork six weeks later, we blew them away. I think there were similar strains of that attitude from Limerick two weeks ago. They didn’t go out to lose against Tipperary, but winning wasn’t a priority.

I saw John Kiely react this week to my comments afterwards, about how I felt that Limerick may have had their eye on that third-place as opposed to going all out for a place in the Munster final.

John made some valid points in response, especially with it being their third game in 14 days. Limerick were more than entitled to do what they did and to experiment with players, but I’m sticking to my conviction, or not rowing back on my belief. If Limerick really wanted to win, they’d have played their big guns. When the game was going against them, they never brought on their captain, Declan Hannon, or Gearoid Hegarty, who is in the running for Hurler-of-the-Year.

Even though there was a huge crowd in Thurles, there was still a kind of false mood and atmosphere around the match. I don’t think that Limerick and Tipperary expected to meet so soon again in a Munster final. I’m sure that they felt that, whatever happened that afternoon in Thurles, that Cork would win in Ennis and progress to the provincial decider.

Now that they’re here, they’ll both go hell for leather at this. Liam Sheedy was very strong after the game two weeks ago about how much Tipp want to maintain that winning habit, but the dynamic completely changes again with them meeting Limerick in a final.

There won’t be any sizing up or holding anything back because the Gaelic Grounds will be sparking like a tinder-box. Apparently, there has been a frenzy around Limerick for tickets. The Munster Council could have sold thousands more tickets and players feed off all that energy and anticipation.

These Tipp players are more than used to big days but Limerick are on a kind of roll now. The county as a whole is still rocking from last year’s All-Ireland, but there is that massive hunger too to try and hold the three big trophies – All-Ireland, Munster and League – at the same time.

With all that stuff at play, Limerick are in a great position. They will have their strongest team on the pitch this time around whereas Tipp are a weakened outfit from two weeks ago without Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher and probably Cathal Barrett.

You can’t underestimate the loss of ‘Bonner’, particularly against a player like Hannon, and especially with how well ‘Bonner’ was going. If you had said to me at the start of the year that his loss would be game-changing, I wouldn’t have believed it. But his form has been that good. In our Irish Examiner Championship podcast recently, his clubmate Ken Hogan said that ‘Bonner’ was like a 21-year old again, winning all the sprints in training.

The game will be tactical, especially surrounding the respective roles of Hannon and Padraic Maher, and how deep they may sit, or may have to sit. Limerick saw first-hand two weeks ago how influential Paudie can be and I’m sure Kiely and Paul Kinnerk will have come up with something different.

Both teams will flood the middle, but Limerick will try and mix up their running game with long ball into their full-forward line. And if they get their strike forwards on enough ball, I expect them to win.

Finally, it’s just a shame that tomorrow’s Joe McDonagh Cup final is clashing with the Munster final. It’s a great competition, but while the players deservedly get their day out in Croke Park, the timing of the fixture sums up its consistent lack of profile. Because most of the hurling supporters in Dublin will be in the bars watching Tipp and Limerick beforehand.

It’s tough too that both teams will only have a week to prepare for the preliminary quarter-final, but the big prize is the ticket to next year’s Leinster championship. I haven’t seen much of Westmeath but I was very impressed with Laois when I saw them beat Kerry in Tralee.

They have that Eddie Brennan attitude of going for goals and, while I expect the game to go to the wire, I think Laois will get the job done. Just.

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