Last weekend, Limerick’s Shane Dowling nudged David Dempsey as the National Hurling League final unfurled before them. The two Na Piarsaigh men were on the bench, taking in the surroundings.
“I turned around to him midway through the first half Sunday and said, ‘this place is like a morgue’. I know there were 40,000 people but divide them into different counties and how many of them were really supporting the teams in the hurling game?
“My next comment, though, was, ‘if there was nobody here, this is brilliant for us’. Everyone knows there were plenty of years we weren’t going to Croke Park, and the preparations on Sunday helped because if we get back there, we’ll know where to go, what to expect.
“It just makes things easier. It was a bit dead Sunday but from a Limerick point of view it’s important to get up there as often as possible.”
Dowling points out that last year’s All-Ireland semi-final win against Cork was a first senior outing in Croke Park for many of his teammates, adding “it’s a huge help” to play regularly in the big house.
“It didn’t really affect many of our lads last year when we played Cork, but if you’re playing in Croke Park for the first time in a big game, in front of a big crowd, you can’t hear someone . . . it has to affect you. You’re human.
“Cork were six points up after 60-odd minutes last year, so maybe it took that length of time for our lads to get into it, maybe that was papering over the cracks.
It’s Dowling’s eighth year on the senior panel and by his own admission they weren’t all fruitful seasons.
“The last two years have been great and even sitting down where we are now looking at all the cups... while I always dreamed of winning Liam MacCarthy, I had never considered winning a league title and for many years I had said that we were a Division 1B team — that was my belief. We then had young people coming in and we had to develop and the timing was right when we got out of Division 1B, because we were a team on the up and we had earned the right to be in Division 1A.
“To be up there in our first year and to go on and win it, considering the number of lads that got game time, has been incredible. Especially considering what went on over the winter — it’s hard to believe, to be honest.”
Part of the success is the atmosphere in the camp, he says.
“When we were there a number of years ago, if you had a smile on your face in the dressing room or a bit of a laugh three-quarters of an hour before the match, some fella would be giving out and telling you that you were not tuned in.
“Now if you are in the dressing room and not laughing and smiling three-quarters of an hour before a match, someone thinks there is something is wrong with you. I’ve said it before but the whole enjoyment factor has been brought back.
“The whole mentality has changed — people realise that you have to enjoy yourself to perform. You have to be happy within yourself to perform on the field. People were trying to do the right thing a number of years back but they weren’t.
“With people learning more, and science, we have the right balance in Limerick, with the right people in charge.”
That’s shown in the attention to detail. Everyone thinks they have that organised, but Limerick can prove it.
“In fairness to John (Kiely) and the boys, the one thing that they are fantastic at doing is planning and getting things right,” says Dowling.
“From training on the field and off the field. Even days like in Croke Park, they go like clockwork. From week to week, our routine is brilliant and everyone knows what gym work has to be done, what training has to be done and we know the times and how long it will be on for.
“That gives lads a chance to plan their week and everything is so easy from Sunday to Sunday, from week to week.”
Of course, that’s always true when you’re winning. Dowling agrees: “You could lose to a last puck of the game, a fluky goal, and then people think things are gone pear-shaped. But you win and everything is going great.
“It was happening in Na Piarsaigh for a few years when we were winning group games and maybe it was papering over the cracks but with Limerick we are winning at the minute and I don’t think there are any cracks papered over.”
He’s enjoyed having a winter of conditioning with Limerick after all those springtimes on the road with Na Piarsaigh in the club championship.
“It’s been great to get in and get the hard training done, which is very important and especially for someone like me — some lads get away with it, but I don’t, and that’s just me.
“It was very important for me to get a good winter’s work done and hopefully the next number of weeks and months will see that pay fruition.
“When we play matches — A v B isn’t the right term but whatever way you want to word it, there’s nothing between the two sides. You would imagine if there was a greens v whites games or whatever, that the main team would win by 10-11 points but that doesn’t happen in our games and doesn’t happen because the other 15 lads are putting on so much pressure.
They’ll need to be right for the Munster Championship this year, described by the Premier Medical rep as “dog eat dog”.
“It’s tough, a lot of counties would have seen that last year,” says Dowling. “I think Limerick’s biggest challenge this year will be getting out of Munster. If we get out of Munster it’s not that it suits us, but it’s so dog eat dog in Munster, it’s so competitive.
“We’ve drawn with Clare, Cork came to town and beat us, I believe Liam Sheedy will have Tipperary hopping, and Waterford down in Waterford.
“While we’re at the top, and those are the facts of it, I don’t believe we’re too far ahead of any other team. Going week on week is very demanding and you saw John change the team after lads had played two games in the league.
“It wasn’t a change because of form so much as with an eye on the Munster championship, so that what happened us in Ennis last year won’t happen this year.”
What’ll help them is the relaxed team atmosphere he’s mentioned. It helped last year in overcoming the pre-All-Ireland hype and would have been the same, he feels, if they’d made the Munster final.
“John has said he’s never seen a team so relaxed. It’s brilliant. Some lads you’d imagine to be steely or wired up before games but that’s not what we do. I can’t explain it, it’s just the players there, it’s just what some players do and other feed into it.
“A six-day turnaround — it doesn’t really make a difference. It might have had with other teams I was involved with but this team’s different because players approach it differently.
“Whether we played a Munster final or not, hype or no hype, it didn’t matter because if the hype of an All-Ireland didn’t get to us, nothing would. I’m not being ignorant when I say that, it’s the team.
“I think it’s irrelevant which road we go down, though it does make a difference that there’s only a handful of us with Munster medals, and I know John would be very keen to get his hands on the Munster Championship. And the lads with one Munster medal would be keen to get their hands on another.”