That Kilkenny is the only other county in the past 30 years to back up an All-Ireland final win with a hurling league title the following spring tells you the path which this Limerick group are forging for themselves.
Beyond the swelling of their medal haul, this was another sit-up-and-take-notice display from John Kiely’s charges. They won here by eight and it could have been much more. That the winning manager made a point of expressing his annoyance at the number of scores let slip said as much.
Aaron Gillane, who top-scored with 1-9, tallied six second-half wides, a number of which were fairly run-of-the-mill frees he’ll have been disappointed to miss. Peter Casey and Graeme Mulcahy, too, were guilty of poor second-half wides.
Safe in the knowledge they had a first league crown since 1997 wrapped up entering the final quarter of an hour, there was a noticeable drop off in Limerick’s intensity approaching the finish. And yet, despite this, they still managed to hold Waterford scoreless from play from the 54th minute onwards.
Shane Dowling and Seamus Flanagan both chipped in with a point from play when introduced, the latter quickly making a nuisance of himself for a weary Waterford defence. Mike Casey did not feature yesterday, but his return to full fitness in the coming weeks will strengthen Kiely’s defensive hand come championship.
All told, the management has an abundance of options in most areas of the field. Twenty-nine Limerick players started at least one league game, with 23 of that group featuring in four games or more.
Arguably the most competitive Munster Championship of all time may loom on the horizon, but based on the evidence provided this spring, it is near-impossible to see a situation materialising where the reigning champions do not finish in the top three in the province.
From yesterday’s matchday 26, only five Limerick players — Nickie Quaid, Tom Condon, Declan Hannon, Mulcahy, and Dowling — have tasted provincial success. That is the next target for this group, said Kiely.
Very few of them have Munster medals. That should be at the top of their agenda right now. They should be going hunting one down every time they get a chance. Who knows the day you lose that chance.
Unlike how they finished their last visit to Croke Park, Limerick thundered into this decider and were 0-8 to 0-2 ahead by the 14th minute. Gillane was responsible for half of this tally. The pick of the bunch was his eighth-minute effort where he pulled down a Darragh O’Donovan delivery, swivelled, and pointed. O’Donovan also got in on the scoring during that opening burst, chipping in, as he routinely does, with a sideline cut.
Stephen Bennett, who accounted for 0-7 of Waterford’s first-half 0-10, was his team’s sole contributor on the scoreboard until Kevin Moran split the posts on 16 minutes. This score arrived in the middle of four unanswered Waterford points. Indeed, they’d outscore the All-Ireland champions 0-6 to 0-1 between the 14th and 26th minute. They could have even had a goal during this period, Quaid getting down smartly to repel a Stephen Bennett drive.
Having seen their lead cut to the minimum, 0-9 to 0-8, Limerick stepped on the accelerator once again.
Gillane beautifully connected with Tom Morrissey’s delivery for a 27th-minute goal. By half-time, a gap of five, 1-12 to 0-10, had been reopened.
Such was the pressure being put on the Waterford defence, their deliveries up the other end of the field did not allow the Bennett brothers capitalise on the space around them. Shane, who failed to score for the second outing in a row, was substituted. It was the same story for Peter Hogan and Mikey Kearney. Jamie Barron found himself with Cian Lynch for company at midfield and had little or no impact on proceedings.
Waterford, who yesterday lost their fifth consecutive final (2015 and ‘16 Munster finals, 2016 league decider and 2017 All-Ireland), desperately needed a bright opening to the second half. Instead, their opponents clipped four of the first five scores directly upon the restart. Included in this sequence was a Declan Hannon belter from distance which stemmed from Jack Prendergast being hounded out of possession down the Hogan Stand sideline by three green shirts.
Similar instances were repeated throughout the field over the 70-plus minutes. Added to their movement off the ball, Limerick both outfought and outsmarted the Déise.
Austin Gleeson and the Mahony brothers had the scoreboard reading 1-16 to 0-14 after 48 minutes, but Páraic Fanning’s troops needed to mine a goal or two. Quaid, however, was not for budging. The ‘keeper produced a fine save to deny Jack Prendergast. Sean Finn, meanwhile, got himself in the way of a Stephen Bennett drive.
Limerick, not for the first time this spring, had all the answers. Now to see can they continue this upward graph into summer.
Scorers for Limerick:
A Gillane (1-9, 0-4 frees); G Hegarty, P Casey (0-3 each); S Dowling (0-1 free), C Lynch (0-2); T Morrissey, D Hannon, G Mulcahy, D O’Donovan (0-1 sc), S Flanagan (0-1 each).
Scorers for Waterford:
Stephen Bennett (0-9, 0-6 frees); Pauric Mahony (0-5, 0-4 frees); A Gleeson (0-2, 0-1 sc); Philip Mahony, M Walsh, K Moran (0-1 each).
N Quaid; T Condon, S Finn, R English; D Byrnes, D Hannon, D Morrissey; C Lynch, D O’Donovan; T Morrissey, K Hayes, G Hegarty; A Gillane, P Casey, G Mulcahy.
M Casey for Condon (HT); S Flanagan for Mulcahy (57); B Murphy for Gillane, S Dowling for Morrissey (both 65); P O’Loughlin for Hannon (69).
S O’Keeffe; S McNulty, C Lyons, N Connors; Philip Mahony, T de Búrca, K Moran; J Barron, M Walsh; A Gleeson, M Kearney, P Mahony; Shane Bennett, Stephen Bennett, P Hogan.
J Prendergast for Walsh (HT); T Ryan for Shane Bennett (47); C Prunty for Lyons (48); P Curran for Hogan (57); S Roche for Kearney (61).
J Owens (Wexford).