I probably could have done with a glass of whiskey to stimulate me after the cold and anaemic Dublin-Tipperary match, but I was just craving the warmth of friendship and the comfort of hurling banter from some of the locals.
The talk inevitably drifted to the league semi-final pairings and the intrigue, or lack of intrigue, in two provincial showdowns. There was almost a general lament that Limerick and Wexford hadn’t been drawn together, and that one of them would be guaranteed to make the final. “Hi,” I said, “isn’t it nearly better the way it is. Now, both of them can make the final.”
A couple of lads nearly spluttered into their pints. The general consensus was that while Wexford have a great chance of beating Kilkenny, Limerick have no hope of beating Tipperary. A couple of the lads said that Limerick would be happy now that they had got exactly what they needed out of the league: Promotion from Division 1B, and a good morale-boosting win against their neighbours Clare, in a quarter-final.
Limerick were deemed to be in bonus territory, but what’s bonus territory at this stage of the competition?
It’s easy to forget that Limerick were in the last two league semi-finals as well and all they had to show afterwards was two poor, and morale-sapping, performances. I don’t think those two defeats to Waterford in 2016, and Galway in 2017, did Limerick any favours heading into those two championships.
Limerick already have promotion in the bag, which they didn’t have back in those two seasons, but a clipping in a national semi-final would go a long way towards clipping back some of that bonus
Limerick could certainly do with a national title, but there’s also the added incentive of a trip to Australia for the winners this year, who will play Galway in an exhibition match in Sydney in November.
A group of Limerick senior hurlers haven’t been on a team holiday since reaching the 2007 All-Ireland final. Can you imagine the value alone that trip would be from a bonding, and team-building, perspective? You couldn’t put a price on it.
Most of the Tipperary and Kilkenny lads have been on team holidays around the world from their All-Ireland wins, and All-Star junkets, but the Limerick and Wexford players haven’t been exposed to those kinds of exotic trips, so how much of an incentive will that be for Limerick and Wexford now?
For John Kiely and his management, this evening’s semi-final also presents an opportunity to address a worrying trend of poor starts in their last two games, against Galway and Clare.
I’m sure Michael Ryan will have a similar thought after last week’s first-quarter snooze against Dublin. If Tipp come out with all guns blazing early tonight, and Limerick don’t match them with that fire, they’ll be burned.
In the expanding world of sports psychology, one of the most common terms used is ‘trigger points’, and how they are applied to try and flick a collective and individual mental switch in players’ heads. When I was managing Dublin, we invariably had a trigger word for certain scenarios, just to mentally lock the players on to what we felt we needed them to focus on at a particular time in a game.
That may be something as basic as shouting some code-name into the lads to transmit the message that it’s time to really go for the next puckout, to target the next score, to drive on and go five or six points up, instead of just settling for a four-point lead and maintaining a cruising speed. It’s just another form of keeping guys alert and fully concentrated, in the middle of all the chaos.
Aside from those two poor starts, Limerick have been locked on, and tuned in, all season. They look to have even more potential for improvement now that the Na Piarsaigh lads are back but I’m not surprised they weren’t considered for this evening’s game.
The toxins from last weekend’s disappointing replay defeat are sure to be in their system still but the management probably want to be fair too to the lads who have got Limerick this far. Whatever happens this evening, anyway, Limerick will be as confident as any other hurling setup with the depth they seem to have in their squad.
Tipp look to have the strongest panel out there, especially when you consider their options up front.
Of the teams left in the last four, they are alone in cruising into the semi-finals, but they still have creases to iron out. As well as the poor start last weekend, Danny Sutcliffe, Conal Keaney and Paul Winters hit 0-10 from play, which is a fair share of scores to ship in a rout. Dublin would have scored more if they had given Ryan O’Dwyer better service.
Some of the ball sent in, Our Lord wouldn’t have won it. It was old-style stuff. ‘Great8 ball’ I would often hear the Dubs behind me roar when I was manager up there. My head used to be wrecked. There’s a big difference between an angled ball and one heading for the corner-flag.
Limerick are bound to use possession that bit smarter, but they’ll need to against Tipp, because they’ll have to make every scoring chance count.
They’re up against it, but I fancy them. Limerick have momentum. They’re full of confidence. I’m not fully sure what team Tipp will put out. I know they’ll go all out to win it, but I just think Limerick’s raw desire and hunger might be decisive.
If they do get the result, I expect it to be a novel Limerick-Wexford final. Wexford are unbeaten in Wexford Park under Davy Fitz and the winning culture is getting stronger all the time.
The biggest cats of all won’t fear that Lion’s den, but a den is always harder to take down when its constructed with the blocks and bricks of a siege mentality.
For years, anytime Kilkenny arrived in Wexford Park, they fully expected to win. Wexford, though, have removed that comfort blanket and have
enveloped the place with their own ring of mental steel. You can just imagine Fitzy’s team-talk beforehand tomorrow. ‘Are we going to let this crowd into our place, and think they own it? That doesn’t happen here anymore.’
It doesn’t and this group are getting stronger with each game. Wexford are evolving all the time but, while the household names are still leading this crusade, the younger guys behind them are driving it just as hard.
Also, all these guys would do absolutely everything for this cause at the moment. If they bring that conviction and mentality with them tomorrow, which I fully expect them to, Wexford could take this by four or five points.
Tipp-Kilkenny may still be many bookie’s fancy, but I always felt from the outset that it could be the kind of a league where the old order might be replaced by new money.
Galway’s All-Ireland’s success and Waterford’s progress to the final, was bound to give confidence to more teams, while the uncertainty of the new championship system had the potential for teams to experiment and open up even more doors for others.
Historically, teams will always have a certain perception of the league, but when the semi-finals roll around, the door to the summer opens up even more, because momentum and confidence can start to build quicker. I also think that, with two games still to go, that trip to Australia for the winners could make this a very interesting competition yet.
Because, who doesn’t want to go looking at kangaroos and crocodiles over the winter?