The first time I saw Peter Casey during my time with the Limerick Academy, and as Limerick minor coach in 2015, I felt he’d be more suited to being a jockey in the Irish Derby than a hurler lighting up Croke Park.
Caso had incredible hands but he had such a jockey’s frame that you wondered if he’d ever be strong or physical enough to make it at inter-county senior level. A fella like him probably wouldn’t have survived in the past but Caso has certainly proved himself at the highest level now.
Peter always had the skill and class to make it but his path to the top really began in the Limerick Academy gyms under the surveillance and guidance of Cairbre Ó Cairealláin, Mikey Kiely, and Darragh Droog.
Those guys really steeled Caso. He took a tackle in the Munster final that would have rattled Anthony Joshua but Caso bounced straight up off the ground. It was a testament to Peter’s resilience but his immense conditioning was also a silent tribute to the foresight of Joe McKenna.
Although he was a big powerful man, I’d say Joe never lifted a weight in his life. The only weights hurlers lifted in his day were bales of hay. Joe didn’t need a gym to sculp his power and physique but, in his role as head of the academy, Joe seemed to grasp very early the importance strength and conditioning would have in turning Limerick into something they had never been before.
There were times in my role with the academy when I felt the S&C culture was being overdone with young players. That fear largely stemmed from my experience with Dublin in 2012 when we concentrated too much on the gym and not enough on our hurling.
I expressed my concerns but Joe was always rigid in his approach and the culture he hoped it would foster. “Teach them how to lift properly at 15,” he would say, “and they’ll know then how to do it right going forward in the rest of their careers.” Limerick have the balance perfect now because they’ve married power with the class that the academy has continually produced. Kyle Hayes’ first touch may not be as sweet or silken as Caso’s but he’s turned into a physical specimen who is in the running for successive Young Hurler of the Year awards.
He’s still only 21 but Kyle’s youthful confidence and exuberance could almost act as a barometer for this Limerick outfit. The stronger he has got during the campaign, the stronger Limerick seem to have got. Kyle was firing Tipp lads out of his way in the Munster final and now he’s going back to Croke Park, the championship playground he’s been craving to return to since last August, when he was man of the match against Galway.
Kyle will thrive in this environment because he absolutely loves the challenge — and the opportunity — it presents to him and all the athletic and pacy teammates around him. Joe O’Connor has physically developed this team into a machine and they just look built for Croke Park.
They are tailor-made for going to war with anyone but most teams are also tactically playing catch-up on Limerick. They are consistent in how they set up but I’m sure that in tonight’s All-Ireland SHC semi-final, we’ll see something different as well from Paul Kinnerk, a little tweak in the system that Kilkenny are not expecting.
Limerick always look to disorientate teams by dragging them all over the field, and tearing any shape and defensive structure apart, but Kilkenny held that defensive shape very smartly against Cork. Conor Fogarty stood his ground to block off the channels and zones Cork wanted to hit Patrick Horgan and Alan Cadogan, and I’m sure Kilkenny will want Fogarty to do the same now to cut out that supply to Aaron Gillane.
Limerick will surely have their own ideas for TJ Reid, just as Wexford had with Matthew O’Hanlon and Cork had with Stephen McDonnell as a man-marker for TJ. That brief will probably be handed to Dan Morrissey because Limerick won’t want Declan Hannon and Diarmuid Byrnes tied up trying to lasso TJ, especially when they’ll need them as much for their creative as their defensive duties, and the quality of ball they play into the Limerick inside line.
It’s a rare sight to see Kilkenny go into an All-Ireland semi-final under Brian Cody as rank outsiders but it’s something they will relish. They’ll almost be offended by that status and pumped to show that, while Limerick have succeeded them as the game’s main force, the big cats can always be a match for any top dogs.
Kilkenny are just the ultimate warriors and this will be the ultimate battle. But I expect Limerick to win by three points.
When I was in the Limerick Academy, Pádraig Harrington came to talk to the minor management and all the underage coaches one evening. Harrington spoke about all the second-place finishes throughout his career but he never swayed from his core principle before he eventually started winning majors for fun. “I knew that If I kept bringing it to the edge,” said Harrington, “that I’d eventually fall over.”
That was one of my abiding principles when I was with Dublin, and it’s been a similar mantra with Davy Fitzgerald in Wexford, especially in how he sets his team up. That was never more evident than in the Leinster final when Wexford just brought it down the stretch, right to the edge, before eventually getting over the line.
Tomorrow’s second semi-final will be just as intriguing as today’s match but Davy’s involvement adds to that intrigue. In fairness to him, he brings something different every time but Davy’s relationship with Tipperary from his time with Clare will add another layer of mystery.
He stumped Kilkenny — and everyone else — in the Leinster final by taking on Kilkenny at their own game, with Mark Fanning bombing puckouts straight down on top of the middle of the Kilkenny defence. It was a fair stroke to pull but Fitzy pulled it off.
What will he do now tomorrow? Paudie Maher and James Barry would love to see that kind of a puckout dropping on them but it won’t happen. You’ll see a completely different approach in how they’ll try and spread more than just the puckouts wide and try and expose a lack of pace in that Tipperary defence.
Wexford will want to move the Tipperary half-back line all over such a big field, so much so that Fitzy might even sacrifice Paudie Maher as a sweeper. Tipp will want Paudie in that role because they’ll have that option with Kevin Foley setting up as sweeper at the other end.
Wexford’s most successful match-up four weeks ago was getting Rory O’Connor onto Enda Morrissey and with Fitzy looking to create a similar mismatch again, he’ll surely be trying to get Rory onto James Barry now. If he does, and Wexford can create sufficient space around Rory, and get enough ball into him, they’ll fancy doing some damage.
Liam Sheedy and his management will have their own plans. Cathal Barrett was a massive loss against Limerick but Tipp will probably have ear-marked Barrett for Rory O’Connor. He certainly has the pace to stick with him if Rory makes those runs from deep.
Wexford will be confident. The Leinster final will have strengthened the conviction in their system. With the firepower Tipp have up front, sticking rigidly to that system is the surest way to beat Tipp, to take them down that stretch and right to the edge. The Wexford players and management will also surely have been referring strongly to their league win against Tipp back in February, just to reaffirm further how well set up they are to shut down this Tipp attack.
The belief all along would have still been Tipp would always have the greater firepower to shoot down a team like Wexford. If someone had said before the Munster and Leinster finals that Tipperary and Wexford would meet at this stage, you’d have put the house on Tipp.
But you certainly wouldn’t do so now.
The flatness they showed in their last two games against Limerick and Laois has to be a concern. There have to be some doubts in the minds of these players now but one good performance will open up more than just a gateway to another All-Ireland final; it would restore Tipp with the confidence and belief that the Munster final may have taken from them.
Liam and his management will demand a colossal performance. Many of these players owe a lot to this management for the faith they have shown in them. And I think Tipperary will find that performance from deep down in their gut.
It’s a near-impossible game to call. Similar to last year’s Saturday-night-fever epic between Clare and Galway, this could take extra-time and a replay to separate the teams. But if there is to be a winner this evening, I’d give the slightest of nods to Tipperary.