From the starting XV which delivered the club’s maiden Munster crown in 2011, just five – goalkeeper Podge Kennedy, centre-back Cathal King, half-back Alan Dempsey, Kevin Downes and David Breen - were part of the side which crushed Blackrock in the Munster semi-final of two weeks ago.
Excusing the injured Shane Dowling, that’s an impressive number of new faces over a six-year period, especially considering two more Munster titles were added in 2013 and ’15, not to mention a first All-Ireland club for Limerick on St Patrick’s Day in 2016.
Compare even the current crop to the latter of those wins and there are noticeable differences. 2017 Limerick minor centre-back Jerome Boylan has come in at corner-back this season with Niall Buckley resuming his place in the other corner after dropping to the bench for the concluding games of the All-Ireland series. Tommy Grimes, wing-back on this year’s All-Ireland U21 winning Limerick team, has taken ownership of the number five shirt.
Further forward, Conor Boylan hit two points last time out against Blackrock but wouldn’t have started had Shane Dowling been fit. Indeed, Boylan had to be content with a place amongst the subs for the majority of their county championship campaign. And this was a player who, back in September, was first off the bench as Limerick overcame Kilkenny in the All-Ireland U21 final.
There ain’t too many clubs who can afford to leave an All-Ireland U21 winner off their starting team. This constant stream of new faces stems from the five U21 county titles won between 2012 and 2016. There were also minor wins in 2011 and 2016. The conveyor belt is strong.
“There were a few of us who were older in 2011 and we’ve since moved on,” said manager Shane O’Neill, a player on that breakthrough team. “The U21 successes mean we’ve been able to introduce two or three new faces in different years. 2017 has been no different.”
It certainly makes for the ideal environment at training as players with two and three Munster medals in their pockets fight to win back a spot on O’Neill’s team.
“Nobody can afford to get comfortable in our panel. Lads who had a place earlier this year, and then became injured or unavailable, haven’t been able to get back into the team. Some of these have been stalwarts of this club. The lads who have come in have performed, they’ve taken their opportunity. We reward form. If they have performed, it is up to them to keep the jersey. With the competition that is there, it has created that mindset; if you’re in there, hold onto the jersey and if you’re not in there, get in there and then hold onto it.” The club are bidding to extend their unbeaten provincial run to 11 games on Sunday and while O’Neill is adamant that this stat hasn’t been discussed by players, he says they are by no means content with the All-Ireland and three Munster crowns already won.
“They are very ambitious. I don’t think they are satisfied with what they’ve achieved already. They are young and hungry. They have tasted defeat, as well as victory. They know the difference between the two, that’s been emphasised by the fact that we haven’t been able to perform every year.With regard to the unbeaten run, I don’t think the players will be putting any extra pressure on themselves to keep it going. It just has not been mentioned.”
Having faced Ballygunner as a player in 2011 and a manager two years ago, O’Neill knows to expect a ferocious battle on Sunday.
“They have had the stronger side of the draw. We had it two years ago and we benefited from getting really tough, solid Munster club matches under our belt. This time, we deliberately tried to finish out the Blackrock game early, which we did. We haven’t had a huge stern test, but we are expecting one on Sunday. Ballygunner have been going week to week, thriving on momentum and emotion. I’d say they are hoping that continues. We have had a bit of time, so we might have an element of freshness.”