Limerick march into summer with ambition unchecked

Aaron Gillane shows his delight after Limerick beat Waterford in yesterday’s Allianz HL final at Croke Park. Picture: James Crombie

A league final in keeping with the league itself, then.

Limerick got to their cruising speed in the second half yesterday to put Waterford away, adding the league to their All-Ireland title in a game which echoed many of the regular league encounters, particularly in the aftertaste.

A league without relegation lacked something in flavour all through, and the decider, which hardly approached a simmer, was bland enough fare.

Unless you were wearing green and white you probably felt a little undernourished within five minutes of the final whistle (without necessarily wishing for more of the same), and most of the lessons learned were absorbed long ago.

Limerick are powerful in the middle third. Stephen Bennett is Waterford’s key forward. What else is new?

After just ten minutes it looked like Waterford manager Paraic Fanning would have to apply a tourniquet at half-time, not a team talk. Waterford were six down and suffering everywhere.

The key bullet-point in any scouting report on Limerick is to avoid arm-wrestling with them in the middle third of the field: their Alpine half-back and half-forward lines make for a formidable barrier, with no less an opponent than Tadhg de Burca being turned over in the first half by a thundering herd clad in green jerseys (aside: why is the collective noun ‘swarm’ used for gang-tackling in Gaelic games, when buzzing, swattable insects bear no resemblance to the hurtling muscle on show? Answers on a postcard).

Surprisingly, Limerick’s combination of slickness and delicacy in the close-quarter work is hardly mentioned as much. In possession they’re able to process the ball out of those hot zones with surprising speed: although their players have the power to engage opponents, as we saw yesterday the likes of Kyle Hayes and Cian Lynch focus on quick hands to get the ball to the man in the optimum position.

That was how they got the boot on Waterford’s neck yesterday.

Credit to Fanning’s men, they hauled themselves back into contention on the back of Stephen Bennett’s free-taking and adherence to their approach, but Limerick were on top in that first half and had the goal to prove it.

The Noel Connors-Aaron Gillane duel was emblematic of that first half. Tasty for long stretches, it was a conflict which saw the Waterford man, a long-time specialist in the extraordinary rendition of corner-forwards, keeping Gillane at bay for lengthy stretches.

Yet with ten minutes to half-time, Gillane curated a classy tribute to Jimmy Barry-Murphy’s goal versus Galway in 1983. The angle of the delivery, dipping at speed, invited a flourish, but that kind of invitation takes vision to see and wrists to execute: Gillane was equal to the task.

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Is that the quantifiable difference between All-Ireland winners and the rest? Just before Gillane’s goal Stephen Bennett, Waterford’s main threat, got inside the cover but shot surprisingly early and Nickey Quaid saved comfortably.

Granted, referee James Owens brought back the play for a free Bennett pointed, but a goal would have been a significant boost.

As it was, 1-12 to 0-10 was the half-time score.

The second half was more of the same - Limerick started well and Waterford came back. Again, Bennett had a sniff of goal but went over rather than under the bar. Again, Gillane had a sight of goal but went for the pass to Tom Morrissey, this time however, the ball squirted harmlessly over the end line.

There was no shortage of harmless squirting all round in that second half.

Sometimes a five- or six-point margin is an encouragement; yesterday it seemed more like a disincentive for long periods of a dreary second half. Waterford didn’t seem able to whittle it down and Limerick didn’t seem inclined to build on it until late on.

True, Nickey Quaid saved well from sub Jack Prendergast in the closing stages when a goal was on, but Limerick’s closing rattle of points, was the curled flourish under a signature rather than the hard work of closing the deal. They were well worth the eight-point margin of victory.

“They use the ball very well,” said a disappointed Paraic Fanning of the winners yesterday, though the Waterford manager was also sifting the game for positives:

“I thought we handled their puck-outs very well; for a long time they did what we wanted them to do to a large extent, but they’re very good on the ruck ball, they’re very good on the turnover.

At times, we might have expected to come out with the ball but they dug it out... they’re very mobile, and it’s always the conundrum, do you stick or do you go? The danger if you go with them all the way is that you leave a lot of space in front of your own full-back line.

“They’re probably not different to a lot of teams, including ourselves, in what they’re trying to do, but they’re well down the road with it, they’re in a good place — won the All-Ireland, won the national league — but we’ll see them again soon, too.”

Fanning’s point about space in front of their full-back line was well made: one consequence — intended, you may be sure — of flooding the middle third is the creation of wide open spaces in front of the full-forward line. Declan Hannon and Diarmuid Byrnes found that space time and again with their deliveries, and Waterford suffered as a consequence.

(Some of them still need a little field craft, mind. In the first half Diarmuid Byrnes attempted an overhead flick right in front of manager John Kiely: You never try the Hollywood stuff right in front of the management team).

The manager himself was emphasising the pragmatic after the game. “It’s satisfying to have had a solid league without being spectacular,” said John Kiely.

“The younger lads need a lot of growth and time, because it just doesn’t happen in one or two or three games.

“I think it takes somewhere between six and 10, 12 games for fellas to find their feet and be comfortable. And each year that fellas get two and three games under their belt in the league, it develops them a little bit and maybe get a little bit of added time in other games.

It takes a lot longer than people might expect. There is this expectation that young lads are just going to arrive, the same as if they come off a conveyor belt. They don’t, they are developed and their growth level is important.

“Players grow into the standard that is required here. To be able to deliver consistently takes time. For us, that was as much as the league was about, giving opportunities to lads to grow through the league because it takes time.

“I think it is really satisfying for the group because there are always going to be questions as to how the group as a whole and lads, individually, would cope with what happened last year.”

If you’re not from Limerick then best not to dwell on the subtext of Kiely’s comments — that his side are improving — and try to look ahead to the championship, when Limerick will be visiting Walsh Park.

Surely we can anticipate a far more caffeinated affair when that summer day rolls around?

If last year’s fare is any yardstick, it should come with an extra shot of espresso.

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