Early last month, Seamus Flanagan was asked about the challenge facing Limerick in 2019.
After blitzing last year’s Championship with a fearless young team, would they need to tweak their style to remain ahead of the pack?
“We feel ourselves that no-one can match our work-rate,” responded the big full-forward. “If some team gives 100%, we give 110.”
There was a little more to this win than just Limerick’s appetite for destruction but that ravenous longing to win games certainly went a long way.
Kilkenny kept pace for the first 32 minutes, matching the All-Ireland holders score-for-score, but the ferocity of Limerick’s play in the following 18 minutes or so when they reeled off 2-7 without reply was something to behold. This was Limerick at 110%, like Flanagan promised.
They scored 2-3 of that tally before the interval with the goals, from Na Piarsaigh duo Shane Dowling and Conor Boylan, coming within 33 seconds of each other in the 34th minute.
There and then, Kilkenny’s first defeat to Limerick in the league since 2006, and their first to the Shannonsiders at Nowlan Park since 1997, seemed a certainty.
“It was very competitive initially, nothing in it and then the two goals obviously set them up in a big way and that was it, really,” offered Kilkenny manager Brian Cody who repeated his pre-match claim that Limerick are the best team in the country.
“They’ve developed their game very well. They’re All-Ireland champions and they’ve obviously moved on again from that. This is what, their third match of the league? They’ve been impressive throughout and got better in all their matches.”
The heavy lifting in terms of qualification for the knock-out stages is virtually complete now for Limerick, who are sitting on six points, but you get the sense they won’t be backing off.
Some suggested before the league began that with no relegation at play, and teams likely to take the competition less seriously, we could have a surprise winner.
But Limerick look eager to prove 2019 was no fluke and have youth on their side to keep up this intensity.
As manager John Kiely spoke to media after yesterday’s game, the Limerick dressing-room was thumping to the strains of Gala’s 1996 hit Freed from Desire. Kyle Hayes wasn’t even born then.
Limerick got their tactics spot on and created the spaces to play around Kilkenny and pick off scores at their ease.
Aaron Gillane was terrific in attack, scoring nine points, six of those from frees, and tormenting the Kilkenny defence in general play, playing in a variety of positions.
At the other end of the pitch, Tom Condon, one of just two Limerick players in their 30s, captained the team and won the man of the match award.
“He really stepped up to the plate,” said Kiely of Condon. “He has an opportunity with Mike Casey injured. Nice for him to captain the team today. He’s offered a lot of leadership off the pitch over the last 18 months.”
Kilkenny trailed 2-10 to 0-7 at half-time, having been tied at 0-7 apiece after 32 minutes, and they were 14 points behind with 50 minutes played. It finished up at a nine-point defeat thanks to a couple of bursts of scoring from Kilkenny in the closing quarter.
Richie Leahy scored four points in a row for them at one stage and his performance, overall, was one of the few bright spots for home supporters in the 11,283 crowd.
There was also a debut for Michael Carey, son of DJ, who came on at half-time along with Conor Browne. They replaced Enda Morrissey and Conor Fogarty, both of whom picked up injuries.
In the absence of the Ballyhale players, Richie Hogan and Cillian Buckley, Cody must feel the only luck he’s having at the moment is bad.
Limerick couldn’t have asked for a better start to the league; three wins from three. Perhaps things are going too well for mid-February?
“Only a journalist would think like that,” responded Kiely, dead pan.
In truth, Limerick could have won by more. Hayes passed to Barry Murphy in the 17th minute and his shot flashed just past Eoin Murphy’s near post.
As Limerick’s lead grew, their confidence soared and Gillane, with his back to goal on the right end-line in the 40th minute, flicked sumptuously goalwards, drawing Murphy into action.
Murphy also saved from Dowling who was fed by Gillane in the 54th minute and shortened the hurl to bat goalwards.
Bar a late free, Kilkenny never threatened Nickie Quaid’s goal though the Limerick goalkeeper still had a big impact on the game, consistently picking out his players with clever distribution.
Limerick still have Hurler of the Year Cian Lynch to come back - he was named to start but didn’t feature - along with Flanagan and Casey and, while Kilkenny could do with their best players back, Cody foresees little change for next weekend’s trip to Tipperary.
Scorers for Limerick: A Gillane (0-9, 0-6 frees); S Dowling (1-2); C Boylan (1-1); G Mulcahy (0-2); D Byrnes (0-1 free), T Condon, R Hanley & B Murphy (0-1 each).
Scorers for Kilkenny: R Leahy (0-7, 0-4 frees); B Ryan & K Kelly (0-2, 0-2 frees); J Maher, J Donnelly, L Blanchfield & G Malone (0-1 each).
LIMERICK: N Quaid; R English, S Finn, T Condon; D Byrnes, D Morrissey, P O’Loughlin; R Hanley, D O’Donovan; C Boylan, S Dowling, K Hayes; B Murphy, A Gillane, G Mulcahy.
Subs: T Morrissey for Boylan (55); P Casey for Murphy (56 - f-t); P Ryan for Mulcahy (62); G Hegarty for Hanley (69).
KILKENNY: E Murphy; E Morrissey, C Delaney, T Walsh; P Walsh, P Deegan, P Murphy; C Fogarty, M Keoghan; R Leahy, W Walsh, J Maher; J Donnelly, K Kelly, B Ryan.
Subs: L Blanchfield for Kelly (26); C Browne for Fogarty, M Carey for Morrissey (both h-t); G Malone for Maher (51).
Referee: F Horgan (Tipperary).