The victors will be the worthiest All-Ireland champions in history. That’ll be Limerick.

The front of the Limerick Leader supplement got the tone pitch-perfect, its message as neatly manicured as one of those deliveries from the half-back line for Aaron Gillane or Seamus Flanagan to feast on.

The victors will be the worthiest All-Ireland champions in history. That’ll be Limerick.

Hoping for History. England expects. Galway expects. Limerick hopes. Forty-five years of ceaseless rain on from September 2, 1973, itself famously a day of ceaseless rain, that’s as much as they’re entitled to do.

Hope, not expect.

All those All-Ireland finals lost in the opening minutes or the closing 50 yards. All those summers wasted praying in vain for a saviour to rise from these streets. Unlimited heartbreak, as the man said. And now, at the end of the hurling championship to end all hurling championships, they may have found the key to the universe in Gillane’s points and Flanagan’s roaming, and Cian Lynch’s prods and prompts.

Shannonside folk are entitled not just to hope for an All-Ireland from this crowd but to expect it. The issue is when. No harm if it’s tomorrow. The day after tomorrow never comes.

So, Galway versus their body doubles, a showdown touted since early summer. The victors will be the worthiest All-Ireland champions in history. Eight matches to do it in Limerick’s case, nine matches in Galway’s.

No team in maroon will ever match the 1987-88 iteration for hardness, big personalities, and jagged charisma. Characters without (most of them) helmets. The current crowd? Helmets without characters, like every contemporary team. But a second successive title after a nine-match campaign would blow 1987-88 — five matches, one of them against London — out of the water.

Galway are within 70 minutes of the greatest feat in the county’s history not because of their hurling but because of their heart. The resilience they’ve demonstrated en route hasn’t received sufficient credit. There’s a reason for that. They haven’t become


We shouldn’t feel cheated by this. We anticipated that they would, or at any rate that they’d go close; they never promised it. It’s us, not them.

As the summer has ripened, they’ve demonstrated weaknesses unimaginable two months ago. A heavy armour division has been leaking fuel and blowing tyres and taking hours to negotiate apparently straightforward journeys.

The footnotes of last year — the lack of goals, the absence of a nippy forward to come on and add a dash of spice — have become failings. In aggregate it is less than we expected of Galway and it has simultaneously made them more interesting.

The caveats have bloated into concerns. Drawing two of their last four outings and falling over the line by a point in the other. The dip in GNP, from the 1-28 they hit against Kilkenny in the Leinster final replay to the 1-23 in the drawn All-Ireland semi-final to the 1-17 in the rematch. The new quirk of running snatches, the big first-half leads compiled against Kilkenny and Clare (twice) being whittled away. The 22-minute lacuna, from Jonathan Glynn’s goal in the 22nd minute to Conor Whelan’s point following the resumption, second time around versus Clare. And Clare didn’t score from play for the opening 19 minutes and registered more wides (19) than scores (15). Galway beat them by a point.

The stage for every All-Ireland final resembles an All-Ireland final of the past. In this case try scrolling back to 2004, when Kilkenny entered as tiring champions (they’d hit 3-12 in staggering past a Mullane-less Waterford in the semi-final) and were swept aside in the closing quarter by Cork (1-27 in inundating Wexford in the other semi-final). Galway hit 1-17 last time out; Limerick hit 1-27 in normal time.

Or try 1999, when Cork came late to beat Offaly in the semi-final and did the same to Kilkenny in the final. Young hearts running free, young legs running amok. Or 2006, when Kilkenny’s hunger pushed Cork over the edge and off a cliff.

And yet and yet. It can fairly be argued that Galway have come too far to lose it now. Esoteric as may sound, it manifests itself in the most practical of terms: hard chaws who’ve been here before and who know how to gut it out. In sport, getting the job done is the ultimate skill.

The holders have course and distance, with seven starters from the 2012 final. They have Joe Canning and David Burke putting up their hand when the need is greatest. The victory experience from last year has to be worth a point or two to them in a tight finish tomorrow, as it was in Thurles a fortnight ago. In a tight finish, a point or two suffices. And maybe that performance in Thurles, and that 1-17 was an outlier and normal service will resume here.

In the space of eight months, Limerick have journeyed from Mountjoy to the corner of Merrion Street. They’re still a bacon and cabbage team, but it’s no longer the hairy bacon and overcooked cabbage of before. This is bacon and cabbage like never served up previously, possessing a touch of fusion about it — very much nouvelle cuisine for Limerick hurling — but retaining the base flavours.

The single most impressive feature about John Kiely’s men is the clean, stringent lines of their hurling. Forget that much overused word tactics; modern hurling is about logistics. Get the sliotar into the strike zone and get it in quickly — but not too quickly and not simply for the sake of it.

Limerick are getting it in there with purpose aforethought. One or two passes in their half of the field to set up the delivery, then the long or the diagonal ball, frequently pitched beyond the corner-back. The recipient is given time to come on to the ball, get his head up, survey his options and either turn to shoot or lay off to a colleague within a 30-metre radius.

Limerick’s clarity of thought and execution in their build-up play has been a sight to behold. They never take too much out of the ball or run it into trouble. There’s always someone in the middle third to go long and there’s always someone to supply him. Everyone takes a turn to pass the bullet and everyone takes a turn as quarterback, firing the gun.

The point that put them ahead in injury-time against Cork began with Nickie Quaid’s save, continued with Mike Casey picking up the pieces on the endline and involved two short passes and a long drive before Pat Ryan won the free for Gillane to convert. This was not so much grace under pressure as precision when the din was at its height. Against Kilkenny they sniped 0-24 from play and against Cork 1-19 in normal time. These are monstrous tallies.

The demotion of Seamus Hickey — never a full-back, of course — has seen them swap spectacular for security and gain from the trade. Nobody wants a flashy defender these days. Sure enough, the occasional burst from Declan Hannon apart, there is no sweeping hurling. Casey and Richie English are more mobile, low-slung versions of, and upgrades on, Richie McCarthy and Tom Condon. If they’re to have a key man tomorrow, it’ll be Flanagan, who changes their centre of attacking gravity. He doesn’t have to score. He doesn’t even have to play particularly well. He merely has to stop Daithi Burke dominating by taking him for a Sunday afternoon constitutional. Bringing Burke out to the flanks will turn the defence and allow green shirts to load up on near and far post.

Some other observations.

Gillane doesn’t need to bust the net next time he applies boot to leather. Let’s hope someone got him to YouTube a chap called Gerd Muller.

Whatever you think about James McGrath, he would have penalised the first couple of throws he saw tomorrow. James Owens has no reason not to do likewise.

The draw is 9/1. Not complaining, but in view of the raft of photo finishes this summer, it should be closer to 7/1.

Galway have six forwards who can win their own ball. Limerick have five, the exception being Graeme Mulcahy, who’s merely in the form of his life.

The champions, fitness permitting, return with the same 14 outfielders from last year. Disquieting. Is nobody putting on the pressure in training? They can’t all be going as well as they were 11 months ago.

Galway’s heft and tensile strength versus Limerick’s heft and youthful virility. Real war of the monster trucks stuff. Too claustrophobic to conduce to the pair of them shooting out the lights.

Waterford did wonder last year if Galway lacked a little subtlety up front. In the event, the question didn’t arise. But Micheál Donoghue hasn’t been minded to drain his bench, leading one to wonder how much faith he has in his forward subs. Sooner or later, the day will come when they miss the nuance a Kevin Broderick or a Damien Hayes would have provided.

Hannon is not suited to a nippy centre-forward. At least Joe Canning is not mercury.

Jonathan Glynn on Mike Casey. Sometimes these supposedly critical battles turn out to be nothing of the sort. Casey doesn’t have to go up with Glynn under the high ball; rather he has to prevent him pulling the trigger when he comes down with it. This is a coaching issue. A good full-back knows how and when to spoil.

Limerick are not yet at the stage where they know beyond all doubt how to win. Galway are. It’s the main reason they’re here and they’ve scarcely reached the point where success has become satiety.

Folk memory and dark whispers of 2007, with its opening 10 minutes that cannot be named, should at least help to concentrate the challengers’ minds. They cannot allow Galway to bomb out of the traps and be six lengths up heading down the back.

Though Limerick possess the better goalkeeper, it’s not always the better goalkeeper who makes the match-winning save.

In one of the Father Brown stories, GK Chesterton points out that the problem with a stick is that you don’t know which end of it you’re holding. Galway to land a big punch early in the first half or the second quarter and try to make the best of their way home from there? Limerick to succeed in staying in touch until the final furlong, thence coming with a wet sail?

It cannot be both. Depends which end of the stick you prefer.

Us? Every now and then, as per Heaney, there comes a day when hope and history rhyme. A day like tomorrow.

Limerick’s day at last.

Ger and Dalo’s All-Ireland Final preview part 2: Wildcards, huge gambles and dropping the hurley

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Wednesday, February 24, 2021

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