Enda McEvoy: Are hurling's chasing pack merely playing for second place?

Today’s qualifiers take place under the shadow of Páirc Uí Chaoimh last Sunday. The All-Ireland series will take place under the shadow of Páirc Uí Chaoimh last Sunday. Every championship fixture Limerick fulfil for the remainder of John Kiely’s tenure they will in a sense fulfil under the shadow of last Sunday and that second-half performance.
Enda McEvoy: Are hurling's chasing pack merely playing for second place?

NOT FOR CATCHING: Limerick’s Kyle Hayes bursts past Tipperary’s Dan McCormack before scoring a stunning individual goal in last weekend’s Munster SHC final. Are Limerick’s rivals destined to trail in their wake for the rest of the season? Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

All over bar the shouting, then? May as well hand them the MacCarthy Cup right now and be done with it? Everyone else playing for second place?

Does it matter who’s the second-best team in the land? Is there a second-best team in the land, come to think of it — and if there is, will that make a hap’orth of difference at teatime on August 22?

Here’s one last question, a poser we’ll return to in a fortnight’s time when it’ll contain more relevance and resonance. Should Limerick win the first of the All-Ireland semi-finals, will the second semi be decided partly because the losers’ hearts weren’t quite in it?

No apologies for starting with the champions. Saturday’s qualifiers take place under the shadow of Páirc Uí Chaoimh last Sunday. The All-Ireland series will take place under the shadow of Páirc Uí Chaoimh last Sunday. Every championship fixture Limerick fulfil for the remainder of John Kiely’s tenure they will in a sense fulfil under the shadow of last Sunday and that second-half performance.

How close they’ll get to repeating it. The extent to which it may or may not matter if they don’t.

The possibility of — gulp — them improving on it.

The mistakes Limerick made might have undone another team and would have undone most other teams.

Their early lethargy and sloppy first touch. The three fluffed scoring attempts in the opening two minutes that briefly conjured up memories of the 2019 All-Ireland semi-final. Kiely standing waiting for Godot until the 31st minute when he could justifiably have sprung him 10 minutes earlier. At least Aaron Gillane turns up.

Not this team. The unaccustomed new posture of backs against the wall prompted them to abandon their usual chilly, calculated excellence and hurl with their souls as well as with their microchips.

And a further warning to all-comers: Limerick have taken to averaging two goals a game, meaning that the ballpark score required to beat them is six points greater than last season.

Pat Ryan, left, and Kyle Hayes celebrate after Limerick's Munster final win over Tipp. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Pat Ryan, left, and Kyle Hayes celebrate after Limerick's Munster final win over Tipp. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Yet hurling goes on as it always does and by teatime today the summer will have begun afresh for two teams.

Get past their opponents, regardless of manner or method, and suddenly they’ll have a pen and a blank page.

Eight years ago on a broiling Saturday evening Clare needed extra time to dispose of Wexford in a third-phase qualifier in Thurles.

Nobody — not even Davy — imagined what it would lead to. Nobody could have.

Every journey starts with a single step. Some journeys start with a poxy victory in the qualifiers.

A date next weekend with beaten provincial finalists inevitably feeling a little bruised and sorry for themselves, followed by a potential All-Ireland semi-final against a Kilkenny outfit likelier to be champions in 2023 than in 2021? Yes, please. Bring ‘em on.

It is not difficult to construct a scenario that entails Galway winning this afternoon and pushing Tipp over the precipice next weekend. Nobody would fancy themselves more against Limerick if it came to it, whether in a semi-final or final, or would be entitled to do so.

One small problem. The defeat by Dublin. The dismal 1-14 mustered against Dublin. The very real possibility that many of these Galway players have grown old together and as a collective have crossed the line that divides solid from stolid.

Granted, the media and indeed the public should always be wary about getting fixated on one bad result and refusing to allow for the prospect of improvement and redemption.

In this regard Tipperary 2010, they of the chastening defeat by Cork first time out, will endure as a cautionary tale about the perils of premature evaluation.

The Tipperary of 2010, however, were young and progressive and patently had their best days in front of them. The same remarks cannot be made of the Galway of 2021.

None of this disturbs the hypothesis that the Leinster semi-final may have been nothing more profound or complicated than an old-fashioned bad day at the office for Galway, specifically a bad shooting day. Stats showed that their first 22 scoring opportunities yielded 0-6 and that when Conor Whelan goaled they’d managed 1-8 from 30 chances. Not even Limerick’s ship would stay afloat with such leakage.

Galway's Conor Whelan scoring a goal against Dublin. Picture: INPHO/Tommy Dickson
Galway's Conor Whelan scoring a goal against Dublin. Picture: INPHO/Tommy Dickson

It would be best not to read too much into Waterford’s travails last weekend. There are some displays the winners are better off not parsing in depth afterwards. We scraped home, we move on, we’ll be better next day out. Laois can be tricky opponents for certain teams not at concert pitch, as Clare discovered last year, and Liam Cahill did at least manage to get 12 minutes into Jamie Barron.

Waterford gave the hosts plenty of it at Pearse Stadium during the league on a day when Calum Lyons’s sorties from wing-back troubled Galway. That the Déise may have got lucky last year in getting so far in unique and bizarre circumstances — the original Emergency threw up a series of unusual All-Ireland final pairings, older readers will recall — is neither here nor there. Despite their rotten luck with injuries they retain a core of hardy, athletic youngsters who’ll be only dying to run the legs off Galway in the heat.

Cork's performance against Limerick looks slightly better now than it did at the time and at a very basic level they can go out here and express themselves in a way they couldn’t three weeks ago.

They’ll have less trouble winning the ball; they’ll have less trouble holding onto the ball; they’ll have less trouble moving the ball into the scoring zone. This is a test of their hurling, not their heft.

Bet Patrick Horgan will nail everything that doesn’t move this time around.

The case for a Clare win is a sound one nonetheless.

They’re taut and tempered from their three outings, their spread of scorers against Wexford was encouraging and in difficult domestic circumstances, Brian Lohan has not only kept the show on the road but also appears to have injected his own doggedness and sense of self into his charges.

Defence begins at top of the left. Aron Shanagher may mix injudicious shooting with fine scores but he provides a terrific outlet. John Conlon offers ballast in a rearguard where each man marks his direct opponent without recourse to the comfort blanket of a sweeper. It’ll never catch on.

Clare's David Reidy and Aron Shanagher with Barry Heffernan of Tipperary. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie
Clare's David Reidy and Aron Shanagher with Barry Heffernan of Tipperary. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

To finish with, a warning from history. Stuff, to quote a late and judging by the recent obituaries wildly unlamented US defense secretary, happens. Randomness remains not only a feature of sport but part of its magnetism. Injuries strike. Hotpots get turned over.

The annals of hurling are thus replete with instances of reigning champions who at some stage or other the following summer looked to be home and hosed again. Because stuff happened, they weren’t.

Think of Clare wiping out Waterford in the 1998 Munster final replay but failing even to make the All-Ireland final. (Now that was a summer where stuff really happened.)

Think of Kilkenny beating Cork by 12 points — in today’s money about 17 points — in the 2010 All-Ireland semi-final or Tipperary putting seven goals past Waterford in the 2011 Munster final.

Think of Galway, majestic in the 2018 Leinster final replay in Semple Stadium, the high day of the Micheál Donoghue era.

Although it remains Limerick’s All-Ireland to lose, stuff may still happen.

Starting on Saturday.

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