Champions, group winners, sundry Derby heroes, quadrupeds with gilded reputations. First among these supposed equals, and a very comfortable six lengths first at the winning post, was the mighty Sea-Bird, ridden by the Australian jockey Pat Glennon. After Willie Shoemaker, the great American jockey who partnered one of the also-rans, dismounted he recapped his race thus.
“I kept looking over at the big dude, and the jock on him had a double handful. And I thought to myself, I’m getting out of the way here because if that horse is ever let loose he’ll run all over me.”
The big dude doesn’t run all over opponents any more. The big dude doesn’t do pillar-to-post dismissals like the 2007-08 All-Ireland finals any more. Kilkenny are no longer Sea-Bird. That is the abiding source of encouragement for Limerick tomorrow.
But that doesn’t mean they’re not the Kilkenny of the 2012 All-Ireland quarter-final or a little better, and it doesn’t mean they won’t work up a head of steam in the final furlong and run all over their opponents. That is the abiding source of apprehensiveness for Limerick tomorrow.
The only source, however. Unlike last year against Clare there’s been no hype on Shannonside to weaken focus, no wearying lacuna between provincial final and All-Ireland semi-final to sap legs. They won’t make the mistake of trying to play the occasion here and they shouldn’t make the mistake of trying to combat Kilkenny’s aura. For Kilkenny possess only the remnants of an aura.
Tomorrow is a day of opportunity for the underdogs and simultaneously a day of musts. On the one hand it’s an opportunity to reach an All-Ireland final and a chance to measure themselves against the gold standard, the worst-case scenario being that they’ll depart Croke Park knowing precisely how far away from MacCarthy Cup glory in 2015 they are and precisely what’s required to ford the river.
On the other hand it’s a day of musts and needs, the musts and needs that come with the territory for any team taking on Kilkenny. Must start well. Need to avoid bad wides. Must stay iron-focused from first whistle to last. Need to prevent runs being made through the heart of the defence. Et cetera.
TJ Ryan’s men will say they didn’t quite do themselves justice against Cork in the Munster final, which is fair enough, and everyone outside the county will say they looked better than they really are against Wexford, which is inarguable.
But the bottom line is that, give or take one’s adjective of choice to sum up their display in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, the Green and White have produced three decent performances in a row this summer. When was the last time that happened? The 1994 championship?
Add in last season’s exploits and they’ve produced five decentperformances out of six over the course of successive championships. When was the last time that happened? Certainly they’re a better, more streetwise proposition than they were two years ago when they started brightly against Kilkenny in Thurles but lost their way thereafter. Ignore, by the by, anyone who claims they “should have won” that match; after 20 minutes of the second half Limerick trailed by 11 points. No room there for ifs or buts.
For Kilkenny’s part this is at first glance as close as they’ll ever get to a no-lose situation. Win and they’ll be nicely set up for September, lose and they won’t have deserved to get that far in the first place. Defeat here against these opponents, moreover, would be infinitely preferable to defeat next month against one of the other pair. But Cody’s Kilkenny do not play no-lose games, only dare not lose games. From their cold dead hurleys, etc.
The form book has not worked out auspiciously from their point of view. Offaly, Galway and Dublin were all despatched by Tipperary with the same degree of extreme prejudice that Kilkenny managed. Yet the favourites can, and perhaps will, get by tomorrow without playing well. Their opponents cannot and will not.
Besides, that the latter failed to show for last year’s semi-final doesn’t automatically mean they’ll show for this year’s. Not against a crowd who’ve appeared in 14 semi-finals under Brian Cody and forgot to turn up for only one of them.
But Limerick have the kind of physical edge that Cork and Tipp do not, and Kilkenny have scarcely forgotten the entirely legitimate shoulder that crumpled Richie Power shortly before half-time in 2012.
Clearly Limerick boast plenty of cutting in the full-back line, where Richie McCarthy and Tom Condon possess the requisite boldness for Kilkenny and anyone else too. Whether Paudie O’Brien and Gavin O’Mahony do also may become an issue; against Kilkenny, the first priority for a half-back line is to stop the sliotar going through.
No less importantly, do the two wing-backs have sufficient variety to their defending? O’Mahony, a fine front-foot hurler, may find himself up against Walter Walsh, Richie Power and perhaps Henry Shefflin or Tommy Walsh at various stages. Different tasks, different asks and a mentality of steel required.
Midfield, another Limerick blockhouse, will be quite the battleground. Kilkenny are operating a more defensive configuration than they did a few years back. There’s no Cha Fitzpatrick to act as a seventh defender but they do have Conor Fogarty screening and Eoin Larkin acting as an auxiliary groundhog.
One potential weakness is that Richie Hogan, for all his poise and thoughtfulness, tends to dwell on the ball in possession. This is not an advisable course of action with James Ryan around.
Hogan incarnates both his team’s new composure and their concomitant weakness. As a lead violin amid the percussion he allows them to play a more structured and imaginative game; indeed, he orchestrates it.
But this precipitates the entry to the scene of those ever-active market operators Peter and Paul — you know, the lads who delight in being robbed and paid.
Against Dublin last month Kilkenny spurned three goal chances that would not have been spurned had Hogan been operating 30 metres from goal. Talented as he is, the Danesfort man does not possess the gift of bilocation. And the day is coming when spurning three goal chances will doom Noreside.
Some other observations.
To hold that Limerick were impressive in the quarter-final and Wexford a mile off the pace are not mutually exclusive assertions, but it goes without saying that Paul Browne will not sashay in tomorrow for a goal the way he did a fortnight ago; the Wexford defenders no longer had the legs to get to him. By the same token, David Breen will not be allowed trundle through as he twice did in the first half at Semple Stadium. Cillian Buckley is good in the air and, even if out-fielded by Breen, is mobile enough to turn and retrieve the situation.
Practice ought to have made Limerick’s shooting, if not perfect, then at least serviceable. But it’ll have to be a bit more than serviceable here. No repeat of the four wides in the opening seven minutes against Cork. No repeat of the nine wides of the first half against Wexford.
Shane Dowling has grown into the player we assumed Declan Hannon would become. It will be interesting to see if Hannon, without the pressure of the frees, can atone for his misfire 12 months ago, for the underdogs cannot prosper by Dowling’s output alone. Add this to the lengthening list headed Limerick Needs.
On which note, they averaged 24 points against Tipp and Cork. They’ll need — that pesky word again — more than that here.
But maybe not all that much more given that Kilkenny, due to Larkin’s role, are frequently operating with five forwards, thereby loading a heavier scoring burden onto Walter Walsh and Colin Fennelly.
In sum, while Limerick fans cannot forever keep waiting for jam tomorrow, as of now they look one scoring forward and an exceptional wing-back away from a MacCarthy Cup.
As for the original big dude, when Pat Glennon decided to stamp on the gas at Longchamps all those years ago the response went something like this: whooooshhhh!!!
Kilkenny’s days of whoosh have come and gone. But they’ll probably find another gear in the closing stages, because they’ll be made to, and that will do. They have their own needs too.