Fail to lift the Munster title this Sunday and Limerick are unlikely to retain their All-Ireland crown, former Treaty defender Stephen McDonagh has insisted.
The scenario of a county losing three championship games in the one summer and still managing to climb the steps of the Hogan Stand come mid-August has been made possible by the round-robin system introduced last year, but McDonagh doesn’t foresee Limerick creating such history should they come off second best in the Munster final.
John Kiely’s charges bookended their round-robin campaign with defeats at home to Cork and away to Tipperary, with McDonagh believing that a third championship reverse in the space of six weeks would affect confidence within the camp.
“If they don’t win on Sunday, I’d find it hard enough to see them retaining the All-Ireland,” said McDonagh.
“They’d have been beaten three times, then, and that would dent confidence. A Munster final at home, against Tipperary, it is important to win it. Defeat would shove Limerick onto the Leinster champions side of the draw and it’d become tricky then to retain it.”
Mind you, McDonagh, who was corner-back on the Limerick teams which suffered All-Ireland final heartache in 1994 and ’96, is quietly confident of a first Munster final win for the Treaty County since 2013.
As well as expecting “a sharp bounce” from Limerick at the Gaelic Grounds, McDonagh points to Tipperary’s weakened hand as a result of the cruciate ligament injury which befell Patrick Bonner Maher when the two counties clashed the weekend before last.
“A lot of Limerick players have spoken in various interviews this year about how they are very anxious to win a Munster medal. All bar a few (seven) of the current panel have one. I’d be expecting Limerick’s best performance of the year on Sunday. If we can get to the level where Limerick were last summer, and give the performance I think they can give, I’d expect us to win.”
He added: “Bonner is a huge loss for Tipp. He is one of the top hurlers in the country. I watched him below against Cork in the first round, a brilliant playmaker. He has this ability to take the ball off the ground at a ferocious speed. I genuinely feel very sorry for him.
“You won’t replace a player like him. Now, I expect Dan McCormack to come in at halfforward, but Bonner brought something extra to that forward area because he is a different type of player to Bubbles, Callanan, and the McGraths. He was a workhorse, and yet he was so much more than a workhorse.”
Tipperary had four to spare over the All-Ireland champions at Thurles, a game, according to the former defender, which highlighted that certain Limerick hurlers are better served being sprung from the stand as opposed to marching behind the band.
Kiely had made four changes ahead of the trip to Semple Stadium, with Dan Morrissey, Darragh O’Donovan, Shane Dowling, and Seamus Flanagan replacing Declan Hannon, Cian Lynch, Gearoid Hegarty, and Graeme Mulcahy. Flanagan, who McDonagh identified as one of three players struggling for form, and Dowling were the first to be hauled ashore that Sunday afternoon a fortnight ago.
“This Sunday, the team will possibly consist of 14 of the 15 that started last year’s All-Ireland final, if not the full 15.
We do have a strong panel, yes, but the Tipperary game showed there are a couple of lads who are probably better utilised coming off the bench rather than starting.
“Darragh O’Donovan (who has had his midfield spot taken by William O’Donoghue) had a mighty year last year and is just struggling for a bit of form. That happens. Confidence, maybe, might be down a bit. Seamus Flanagan, the same. Just probably struggling to reach where they were last year. Dan Morrissey, all last year, was fantastic. But that happens. You can’t go out every day and give a nine out of 10 performance.
No matter who you are, it is very hard to be at the top of your game every day.
“We do have a couple of lads at the moment who are struggling for form, but, of course, Sunday could change all that. Get a good game under your belt and you’ll easily start rolling again.”
Kilmallock defender Paddy O’Loughlin, who made his championship debut against Waterford earlier this month, has been at left half-back for their last three outings, but McDonagh reckons Kiely will restore Dan Morrissey to the number seven shirt this Sunday.
Tipperary, in 2016, is the only Munster county in the last 14 years to lift the provincial and All-Ireland titles in the same season. The gap between the Munster final and All-Ireland semi has proven troublesome. The Bruree native is confident, though, the four-week break which greets the provincial champions would do Limerick little harm.
“You couldn’t see it as a negative if we won on Sunday.”