Even the fact that Kerry would once again experience extreme difficulty in overcoming a steely Limerick challenge.
The one surprise was that in spite of gaining a snap goal from man-of-the-match Colm Cooper, the All-Ireland champions struggled all through the first half.
And, it was only at the three quarters stage that they finally settled into a winning pattern, assisted by Dara Ó Cinnéide’s ball-winning ability and the later addition of Seamus Moynihan, William Kirby and Bryan Sheehan.
Prior to that Kerry’s play was a huge disappointment. On the management side, the view was that the level of expectation from their team had been unwarranted and it was clear from what Limerick coach Liam Kearns said afterwards that it had provided a huge motivation for his players.
Though Cooper pounced after 35 seconds and Seamus O’Donnell had to deny Mike Frank Russell five minutes later, the host county never panicked.
Indeed they almost had a goal themselves through Jason Stokes, which was prevented by the interception of full-back Michael McCarthy.
Typically, Limerick displayed super confidence and it was reflected in virtually every facet of their play except, crucially, their finishing.
But, combined with the facts that Russell and team captain Declan O’Sullivan were posing no threat in the Kerry attack and that there was little penetration in their half-forward line, they exerted a huge influence around the middle of the field.
Here, John Quane did exceptionally well on Darragh Ó Sé, and John Galvin (who switched with Jason Stokes) also won a lot of ball against Paddy Kelly.
While it took 11 minutes before Limerick gained their first score, from a Muiris Gavin free, they were level by the 18th minute and three minutes later gained a lead which they were to enjoy until the 11th minute of the second half.
Stephen Kelly’s pace on the left flank caused problems for Aidan O’Mahony, while Michael Crowley made progress on the other side and Gavin was also heavily involved.
Most of their scores came from Gavin frees, but significantly, they were the result of some very effective forward movements which put the Kerry backs under fairly constant pressure and often caused them to concede fouls needlessly.
The value of Limerick’s support play meant that the likes of Conor Mullane and Stephen Lavin made important contributions coming out of defence, along with full-back Johnny McCarthy who kicked a marvelous score.
Before Limerick had drawn level, they had another goal chance when Stokes took a quick free to Padraig Browne, whose low shot was cut out by Diarmuid Murphy. Ten minutes later they were three points clear and continuing to control the game.
The Kerry selectors re-arranged their attack, but it didn’t boost their challenge and it was notable that Cooper was to get their only other score of the half, from a free.
Russell had earlier missed some chances which clearly affected his confidence and it was little surprise that Ó Cinnéide was introduced in his place.
He brought about an immediate improvement, in the way he was able to win clean possession in the air. Limerick managed to get a point just 15 seconds into the second half but they were to wait a quarter of an hour for their next score and by then Kerry’s recovery was well under way.
Hassett opened the Kerry account in the 38th minute, but it was two Cooper points from tight angles which really inspired them. A third, from a 46th-minute free had them level and he put over another free four minutes later.
The game had now entered its most competitive phase and the champions had every reason to feel confident.
Seamus Moynihan’s introduction further boosted the team dynamic, as did the efforts of William Kirby and Bryan Sheehan. Conversely, Limerick missed the influence of Galvin and Quane, who both tired.
They were reduced to 14 men after substitute Mark O’Riordan received a second yellow card, following an off-the-ball incident involving Cooper in the 56th minute. Three minutes later Cooper scored his second goal.
O’Sullivan made it with a powerful run past several defenders, Cooper hit a quick pass to Hassett but (according to Hassett) the ball went all the way to the net. Not quite game, set and match to Kerry, more another reminder of the huge value of Cooper to the team. Without him, it’s doubtful they would have survived this test.
: Kerry: C Cooper 2-5 (0-3 frees); L Hassett, S Moynihan, D O Cinneide (free), E Fitzmaurice and B Sheehan 0-1 each. Limerick: M Gavin 0-7 frees; C Fitzgerald, J McCarthy and S Lavin 0-1 each.
: D Murphy; M Ó Sé, M McCarthy, T O’Sullivan; A O’Mahony, E Fitzmaurice, T Ó Sé; D Ó Sé, P Kelly; P Galvin, E Brosnan, L Hassett; C Cooper, D O’Sullivan, M.F Russell. Subs: D Ó Cinnéide for Russell (second half); S Moynihan for O’Sullivan and W Kirby for Kelly (56th); B Sheehan for Hassett (61st); D Quill for O’Sullivan (64th).
: S O’Donnell; T Stack, C Mullane, J McCarthy; P Browne, S Lucey, S Lavin; J Quane, J Galvin; M Crowley, M Gavin (capt.), S Kelly; C Fitzgerald, J Stokes, S Buckley. Subs: M O’Riordan for Browne (40th); J Murphy for Quane and M O’Brien for Crowley (62nd); M Reidy for Kelly (66th).
: E Murtagh (Longford).