Limerick exit would be a sensation

Munster GAA Senior Hurling Championship Round 5, Cusack Park, Ennis, Co. Clare 17/6/2018 Clare vs Limerick Clare's Jamie Shanahan and Shane Dowling of Limerick. Credit ©INPHO/Bryan Keane

Few if any All-Ireland champions were measured for coffins as much as Tipperary in 1992. Cork, letting their neighbours off the reel twice having been seven points up in the previous year’s drawn Munster final, had them sized up from a long way out. And goals from John Fitzgibbon and Tomás Mulcahy confirmed the retribution in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

Fuelled by Canon O’Brien’s declaration before the game that Cork’s jersey represented the blood and bandages and Tipperary had “a big yellow streak” running through theirs, his players dumped Babs Keating’s side out of the Championship on June 7. There would be another two weeks of longer evenings but Tipperary were gone.

Having beaten Limerick in Ennis last year to reach the provincial final, Clare mightn’t be seething as much as Cork were 27 years ago when they arrive in the LIT Gaelic Grounds on Sunday but the carrot dangled in front of them is weighty. The combination of an expected home win for Cork over Waterford the evening before and a fourth consecutive Championship victory for the Banner over their neighbours would mean Limerick’s reign is over on June 10.

Falls from grace even more premature than Tipperary’s exit in 1992 include Cork’s in 1967 (June 4 loss to Waterford) and Tipperary in 1966 (June 6 defeat to Limerick). In that latter season, a hat-trick of goals from Éamonn Cregan ended Tipperary’s three-in-a-row ambitions at the first hurdle.

But a Limerick exit this weekend would be most stunning of all, bearing in mind their show of strength in claiming the Division 1 title and the widely-held assumption that they were carrying on from where they left off last season.

But how has it come to this, particularly as Limerick sit relatively pretty in second place in the Munster SHC table, after a handsome 20-point win away to Waterford in their second game and boasting a plus 13-point score difference? A combination of head-to-head differentials and scheduling is the short answer.

By 6pm on Sunday, it might all have turned out to be just a bad dream but for now it’s a clear and present danger. John Kiely himself acknowledged as much earlier this week when speaking of the “new level of importance” attached to the upcoming derby and almost calling on Limerick supporters to forgive the home performance against Cork and get behind the team now when it matters most.

Their fine record against Limerick aside, Clare may take comfort from knowing they have the ability to bounce back from disappointments such as the hosing Tipperary gave them in Cusack Park last weekend.

Having lost to Cork despite being eight points up towards the end of the first half of last year’s Munster final, they blew Wexford away in their All-Ireland quarter-final. And they went on a winning three-game run following their opening day reverse against Cork.

Not many expected Limerick to find themselves on this precipice but there were two standout naysayers. In December, Anthony Daly wrote in this newspaper of how his suggestion Limerick might not make the top three in the province went down like a lead balloon at a function in the Woodlands Hotel in Adare.

John (Kiely) knows how difficult it will be to even come out of Munster next year. It’s going to be such a bearpit that when I asked the question, ‘Will Limerick even come in that top three next year?’ it was greeted by jeers and boos from around the room.

“I’ve no doubt that this Limerick group will win more All-Irelands but it’s doubtful if it will be in 2019. Limerick know that every other team will be keen to do them down, to topple them off their lofty perch.”

In February, Jackie Tyrrell spoke of his concern that Limerick were going too good, too early and that was before they claimed the league crown. “I wouldn’t be really getting too carried away by Limerick just yet. It’s a long year. I don’t see them winning the All-Ireland this year, I really don’t. They’re nearly going too well for me now. I would be wrapping some of those lads in cotton wool and holding them back a bit.”

Since the introduction of the backdoor no defending All-Ireland champions have been knocked out of the following year’s competition in June. Clare, after drawing their initial qualifier bout with Wexford on July 5, came the closest in 2014 when they were beaten by Liam Dunne’s team seven days later.

Kiely this week spoke of the Limerick’s epic battle with Clare in ‘96, of being a substitute on the day in the Gaelic Grounds and the vivid memory of Ciarán Carey’s winning score. That season’s was the last knockout championship. Sunday may as well be just that for Limerick.

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