The summer game always looks strange when the players’ breath is visible in small clouds at every facemask.
That was last Saturday night in Limerick, where the playing pitch was wreathed in a fog so cold it took the teams the first 20 minutes to warm up for combat.
The home side and Tipperary had just two points apiece on the board at that stage in this NHL 1A game. It warmed up then, but the 8,559 in attendance weren’t complaining about the length of time it took the game to kindle: they had their own hypothermia-related issues to work through.
Limerick’s comfort in their system and advantage in physical conditioning was enough to get them the win, though they were helped by a misfiring Tipperary attack.
The visitors also played into Limerick’s hands as they tried to chase the game late on, their manager admitted.
“We never really got to the level of work that they brought onto that pitch,” said Liam Sheedy.
“When they got that four or five ahead near the finish we started launching in high balls and that is certainly not our style. It was going into traffic where there were four or five Limerick players.
“I thought that was a really strong, physical game and I was saying they are only back from holiday, will they start to wilt a bit?
“But they didn’t, because they have it in reserve. They are seriously well conditioned under Joe O’Connor.”
Both sides seemed to begin playing at the end of the first quarter, when it was 0-2 apiece.
Tipperary’s Willie Connors fielded well on 22 minutes and his clever pass placed Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher, who cracked home a fine goal; a fine Noel McGrath point made it 1-4 to 0-4 on 25 minutes.
Aaron Gillane (free) and Connors swapped points and on the half-hour Limerick struck. A long, hanging Tom Morrissey delivery was tipped to the net by Graeme Mulcahy (“Barely hit the back of the net,” Sheedy said later) and another Gillane free levelled the game, 1-6 each.
Classy Jason Forde and Barry Heffernan points helped Tipp to the lead, though Tom Morrissey narrowed that on the stroke of half-time, 1-9 to 1-8.
Limerick stretched away in the second half, however. Mulcahy and the impressive Byrnes (free) pushed them ahead, and though Forde and Séamus Callanan tried to keep Tipperary in touch, Aaron Gillane’s accuracy was a significant factor.
Poor wides didn’t help Tipperary’s cause, and when Limerick countered on the break, Gillane was unerring. A late goal chance for Limerick sub Pat Ryan was turned aside by the Tipp defence, but another goal wouldn’t have flattered the home team.
“The result wasn’t necessarily important, it was about the attitude and the performance,” said Limerick manager John Kiely.
Training went really well for us during the week, I think we got an injection out of last week (against Wexford), and you could tell training last Tuesday night that that was there.
"We move on now - it’s a step in the right direction, but the bottom line is there’s nothing won or lost now.”
Kiely stressed the value of Division 1A action to Limerick: “It’s a long time since we had a crowd like this at our first or second round of the league in Limerick. It’s nine seasons, a long time, and now that we are back up there (Division 1A) we’ll be treating it with the highest regard.”
Lessons learned from Saturday night?
For Tipperary, there was plenty to learn in Limerick’s puck-out strategy, for instance, hence Liam Sheedy’s reference to his team getting “a bit of an education on the restart”, but Noel McGrath saw plenty of the ball in the first half, when he drifted off the deep-lying Declan Hannon.
In Limerick’s case, the progress continues. Kiely will be aware that his side’s current advantage in conditioning will hardly be significant come the summer, but his post-match reference to the maturity of younger players will be noted by other managers.
Limerick have room to improve. So do other counties, of course, but not every county has the same starting point.
A Gillane (0-9, 5 frees, 2 65s); G Mulcahy (1-1); D Byrnes (0-4, 2 frees, 1 65); C Boylan, T Morrissey (0-2 each); D Morrissey, D O’Donovan, P Casey (0-1 each).
S Callanan (0-5, frees); Patrick Maher (1-0); J Forde (0-3); N McGrath (0-2); Padraic Maher, W. Connors, B Heffernan, M Breen (0-1 each.)
N Quaid, T Condon, S Finn, R English, D Byrnes, D Hannon (c), D Morrissey, D O’Donovan, C Ryan, G Hegarty, T Morrissey, C Boylan, A Gillane, K Downes, G Mulcahy.
P Casey for Downes (45); P O’Loughlin for Hannon (50); K Hayes for Boylan (55); J McGrath for Breen (63); P Ryan for Mulcahy (65); C Lynch for O’Donovan (70).
B Hogan, D Maher, J Barry, A Flynn, B. Heffernan, R Maher, Padraic Maher, R Byrne, M. Breen, D McCormack, N McGrath, W Connors, J Morris, S Callanan (c), Patrick Maher.
J Forde for McCormack (inj, 12); N O’Meara for Byrne (50); K O’Dwyer for D Maher and M Kehoe for Morris (both 55).
S Cleere (Kilkenny).