Not for the first time, an equine metaphor by way of setting the table. Three of tomorrow’s quartet ran on their merits a fortnight ago. Then, there was the horse in the green and white silks. The stewards wouldn’t have had connections up for running a non-trier, but they might have had a quiet word with the jockey about “insufficient effort”.
To which John Kiely would rightly have pointed out, as indeed he has, that his charge was running for the third time on successive weekends and he was obliged to try something different. Case closed. Kiely picked a perfectly adequate team for the task in hand and they performed, well, perfectly adequately. The only thing that went wrong was beyond his control. Cork losing in Ennis.
At the time, it seemed a blow. Limerick will not get to chill out their karmas for a few weeks, do the necessary in the preliminary All-Ireland quarter-final and take it from there. Still, what of it? Now that they’re there, they may as well complete the trifecta of All-Ireland, National League and Munster title. A strange order in which to be doing it, but no matter.
Think of all the years in the noughties when Shannonside yearned for provincial silverware, when they yearned, even, to reach a provincial final. It would in any case have been incumbent on this Limerick group to win Munster at some stage. Their profile and achievements demand it.
A slight worry about them tomorrow, and for the rest of the campaign, surrounds their ability to return to a level of consistency of performance. Two 10-length victories against Waterford and Clare, a poor display against Cork and an indifferent one against Tipperary. The MacCarthy Cup holders have been running in snatches. Maybe they’ll be able to flick on the switch again and all will be well. Maybe not.
Twenty years down the line, an echo obtains of Loughnane’s Clare, who simply had to have it turned up to 11 to win games. Limerick were at their best against Waterford and Clare and blew them out of the water. They weren’t at their best against Cork and Tipperary and never looked like winning. They have not yet reached that evolutionary stage of getting the job done while performing indifferently.
The fact that their opponents here are four from four brings its own scope for slight qualms, particularly given that in three of those outings they were so blindingly impressive. Have Tipp been too good too soon? What do you call the pre-conclave favourite after a papal election? Cardinal.
A quality coaching regime that reinvented their attacking play has been one of the planks in their progress. A quality strength-and-conditioning regime — and thank heavens Tipperary can afford one — will be required to see them the rest of the way home. Galway’s late-summer fadeout last year is too recent to be forgotten.
Tipperary could have lost, say, Jason Forde to serious injury and replaced him without undue stress. They have plenty — even a surfeit — of Jason Fordes. They will not replace Patrick Maher without undue stress.
He is both Tipp’s thermometer and their scissors, cutting up great stretches of turf with his lust for battle and his prop forward’s fetish for taking the ball into contact. Seamus Callanan and the McGraths can be defended against; they may still do you off the back foot, but at least you can force them onto it. Maher does not possess a back foot or a reverse gear. That he never evolved is, perversely, among his strengths. In a universe of bleeding-edge technology he is hurling’s equivalent of the Nokia 6210, a frill-free entity so durable that even when a bookie’s pen was needed to start it, it obliged.
The loss of a single player should never be allowed to overly colour one’s view of a match. In any case Tipp do have Dan McCormack to step into the breach. McCormack belongs to a category of player populated in the past by the likes of Derek Lyng, Timmy McCarthy and — even further back — Brendan Bermingham of Offaly. You don’t really see what they’re doing. You just know they’re doing something and lo, it is good.
While a decline in Tipperary’s bottom line can be inputted into tomorrow’s calculations, it ought not to herald the apocalypse. Though good forwards cannot win a match without possession, good forwards can win a match with the bare necessity of possession. It is possible to envisage Tipperary subsisting on 45% of the sliotar and their attackers weaving a sufficiency of spells to get the team over the line. It is rather harder to envisage Limerick doing the same.
In the rush to rhapsodise the All-Ireland champions’ myriad other virtues not enough hymns have been written in honour of the Limerick full-back line. They’re mobile, they’re not easily turned, they’re machine-tooled for their positions — Mike Casey is a full-back, whereas James Barry, his opposite number, is a converted centre-back — it shows, and they’re light on their feet. That lightness has helped make Limerick — for so long pre-Kiely a little ponderous, a little reactive, a little throwbacky — low to the ground, pacy, and above all modern.
Victory here will entail taking down Tipperary’s half-back line, their turbine generator. In that regard Kiely did well not to field Gearóid Hegarty in Thurles.
Knowing what to do — denying aerial possession to Brendan and Ronan Maher and preventing Pádraic Maher standing over the ball, rising it and barrelling out with it — is not the same as doing it, of course. One way of setting about the task would be to have the half-forwards first-time the occasional ball and let the lads inside worry about it from there. Unfashionable, granted, but ancient verities can still have their uses. Too often in hurling we obsess about finding a tactical solution to an issue when the answer can be coached.
Thus far, the Leinster Championship has taken place in an airless room. Tomorrow is when the windows get flung open. The Gaelic Grounds will be about heat; Croke Park will be about light. The Gaelic Grounds will be about killing space; Croke Park will be about employing every inch of the sward.
The Gaelic Grounds will be about inviting bodily contact, to the extent it may come to resemble an evening on the town with Trump and Biden; Kilkenny and Wexford are not built to bump ’n’ grind.
Tomorrow also represents the next page of Davy v Brian, which is turning into quite the little potboiler. If you wanted to be mean, you could say that one of them thinks too much about tactics and the other one doesn’t think enough about them. If you wanted to be mean.
He’ll always have 2013 with Clare, yet, it is inarguable that the reality of having to pit his wits against Cody on a twice- or thrice-yearly basis has given Davy a new lease of life and prompted him to up his game. Victory in a Leinster final would render the ashes and gall of the 2008 All-Ireland decider a more distant memory. Not quite the ultimate revenge, but near enough.
Wexford haven’t gone up a level this season, because there wasn’t a new level for these players to ascend to. They have, however, gone up half a level, which was as much as could have been asked and more than might have been expected.
Certainly, their round-robin form was better than the stats suggested. The draws in Parnell Park and Salthill should have been wins. The stats also suggest that Kilkenny, who hit an aggregate of 6-49 from play in their four outings compared to Wexford’s 4-48, or 4-36 to 2-29 when the games against Carlow are stripped out, are likelier to compile a match-winning total. No figures are required to tell us that they’re likelier to score more goals. Raise two green flags and Wexford, a team not constructed to bust nets, will immediately have a six-point stagger to make up. One small, two-word problem for their chances of doing so: Eoin Murphy.
Kilkenny will have more room than they did at Wexford Park, with Colin Fennelly peeling off Liam Ryan and Adrian Mullen having a sphere of operations all of his own, but equally, Mark Fanning will find it easier to zap puckouts to Diarmuid O’Keeffe and Lee Chin to hand the sliotar off to the cast of thousands primed to make runs off the shoulder. Chin was effective last time out by not trying to do everything by himself. More of this, please. Some other observations.
We live in the age of Seamus Callanan and TJ Reid. When Christy Ring declared that “the best hurlers are now”, he wasn’t talking about this pair. He might as well have been.
We also live in an age where powers of bilocation are necessary to see both men tomorrow. Two successive years where the Munster and Leinster finals clash are two too many. Only three hurling weekends remain after tomorrow, among them the one featuring the All-Ireland semi-finals. Just because last year’s semi-finals made for an epic weekend, does not make the concept an enlightened one.
The eclipse of Seamus Flanagan, the first man substituted by Limerick at Semple Stadium, was disquieting. Shane Dowling and Peter Casey followed in quick succession. Arguably the lesson to be drawn is not that the MacCarthy Cup holders’ strength in depth has been oversold, but rather it is a reality of sporting life. How often in any sport do subs, regardless of how vaunted they may be, turn a losing situation into a triumph?
Should the Limerick half-forward line shade the battle, the knock-on effect will see Noel McGrath with less time to sculpt his quarter-back’s deliveries. This will, in turn, mean further knock-on effects up the line, none of them auspicious for Tipp.
Given the opportunity, both of the Ennis Road contestants will shoot the lights out. It probably won’t come to that, but the fancy is for Tipperary, because they haven’t missed a beat to date, because — final equine metaphor of Irish Derby day ahoy — they’re like one of those progressive horses you should stay on the right side of until they’re beaten and because they have enough TNT up front to cover the loss of the Bonner.
Given the opportunity, neither of the Croke Park contestants will shoot the lights out, but the fancy is for Kilkenny, because they’re less reliant on rehearsed scoring moves, can find the net a couple of times, and have the subs to make a difference.
No call for stewards’ enquiries afterwards at either venue.