Had the television coverage been directed by Cecil B De Mille, it wouldn’t have come as a shock.
And yes, heartbreak for the Green and White at the end of it. Again. But, for once, this was proper, grownup heartbreak. What tears were shed for a proper, recognisably grownup championship team.
TJ Ryan’s men were magnificent but not quite good enough, and at this level to lose by an inch is to lose by a mile.
Yet that doesn’t mean that Limerick are not entitled to look for, and find, consolation in the rubble. And a sizeable measure of consolation can be found in what last Sunday wasn’t.
It wasn’t the 2005 All-Ireland quarter-final, a wretched encounter they lost with barely a whimper to Kilkenny.
It wasn’t the 2007 All-Ireland final, when they froze in the traps the moment the box opened.
It wasn’t the 2009 semi-final against Tipperary or the 2013 renewal against Clare: don’t mention the war.
And it wasn’t the 2012 quarter-final, when they gave Kilkenny plenty of it in the first half but were dead on the table by the three-quarter stage. On Sunday they failed again but they failed much, much better.
How close were they? Frankly, not close enough to have gone home nursing any serious ifs and buts. David Breen’s shot in the first half aside, David Herity wasn’t forced into anything more taxing than the (trickier than) normal housekeeping duties, and certainly no might-have-beens hung over the losers’ shooting: they didn’t put a single scoring chance wide until the 41st minute whereas Kilkenny had eight wides in the first half and dropped a couple of other balls short. Flip the two halves of that equation and imagine the ochóning on Shannonside today. What with the economy of the underdogs’ shooting and TJ Reid’s anonymity, very few of the boxes required for a Limerick victory went unticked.
Had Shane Dowling or Gavin O’Mahony put in a long-range free in the last minute and one of the Kilkenny defenders butterfingered it into his own net, we’d have said that Limerick were thoroughly deserving winners, that they’d got a break at the end but that by God they’d earned it — and we’d have been perfectly right.
To rebound from the hammer blow of Richie Hogan’s goal and dominate the third quarter was an achievement that might have proved beyond them but didn’t. To rebound from the concussive force of Kilkenny’s second goal was an achievement that did prove beyond them, though. Barely.
What happens next is obvious. If Limerick are truly ambitious in the near future, the county board will give TJ Ryan and his backroom team a three-year contract at their September meeting and leave them to it. No progress reports or post-National League reviews or any of that nonsense.
Then Ryan and cohorts, the edges of Sunday’s disappointment planed by the passing of a few weeks, meet for a debrief and a review of what they’ve done well (most things, primarily the introduction of an engaging and recognisable style of play that neatly blends the long and the short); what they haven’t done so well (scoring goals); and what they’ll need next year.
In view of their goalscoring (or lack of), a marquee inside forward to share the burden with Dowling has to be located. A barbed-wire wing-back is another essential; the two Fennellys turned the half-back line far too easily and far too often in the first half.
The sooner Ryan is granted security of tenure, the better. Limerick’s record over the course of the past two summers reads as follows: Played seven Championship matches, Performed in six of them. They’ve come too far in that period for anything to be allowed halt their progress now.
For another way of gauging their development, try this. While Richie McCarthy was a worthy All Star last year, he was no shoo-in; he benefited from a tacit acceptance by the selectors that Limerick’s Munster title required due recognition. This year, with no provincial silverware won, no such imperative will obtain. The difference is, Dowling and Seamus Hickey will walk onto the All Star XV because they deserve to, not because their presence will balance the ticket.
It’s that collective progress again. Hickey the star we knew he’d become and Dowling the starlet Limerick people hoped he might. McCarthy a beacon at full-back. James Ryan and Paul Browne a really good midfield pairing, even if they came off second best against Hogan and Conor Fogarty. Limerick hurled better this summer — a small but recognisable improvement — than last summer. Hurling a little better again in 2015 is the next challenge, and the chase is already afoot.
Perhaps one had to be in Croke Park to fully appreciate the brio with which the contestants transcended the conditions. Sometimes us hurling folk get so precious about the game that we come across as snobbish cultists, shrill purveyors of an inferiority complex. If only this wonderful sport could be seen across the globe! If only those overpaid soccer lads would act like real men instead of rolling around when they break a nail! Etc.
On Sunday, however, it was impossible not to be proud of the players amid the controlled madness. The effort, the honesty, the mutual respect. The conditions were not allowed to become an excuse for emotional imprecision, never mind sneakiness or malevolence. What makes a hurler a real hurler is not the three feet of ash plant between his hands but the way he takes care not to misuse it. And their amateur status was neither here nor there; each of the 35 could have been on 50 grand a week and we’d still be entitled to be proud of them.
Thus the sequence of notable tempest-tossed Kilkenny/Limerick encounters continues. There was the 1935 final, played in a downpour and generally regarded as the greatest game of the era: a one-point win for the men in stripes. There was 1973: Limerick’s return to Eden and that pushover try of a goal Noel Skehan will never forget. Now this.
As always, the rain suited the team with the better touch. Again as always, the rain made it a day for backs rather than forwards. In the circumstances, then, JJ Delaney and chums were twice blessed. They won’t be as fortunate against Cork or Tipp next month.
It was not Brian Cody’s finest afternoon on the line. The world and its mother knew beforehand that if the match was to be won off the bench, there’d only be one winner, but the thing about having a rake of good subs is that it only becomes an advantage if you use them. Starting Mark Kelly looked odd; leaving him there for 50 minutes was downright bizarre. But Richie Power was the game-breaker and Michael Fennelly got the entirety of the trip, a bonus with September 7 in mind.
As for Limerick, another failure but, for a change, a glorious failure. For the moment, that’ll have to do them.