Try this one on for size: Limerick — hurling’s best championship team? Bear with us. Name a team, any other team, who has undermined their league form come business time as much as the county this decade.
Before you start, their annus horribilis of 2010 doesn’t count. That strike season deserves to be neglected in these considerations as it should be forgotten. It has no bearing nor is any reflection on what Limerick have achieved in distancing their shimmering summers from their snoozy springs.
A combination of factors — relegation, a competition restructure and an illegal player — have contributed to them languishing in the second tier of the league these last five seasons. Primarily, it’s their poor or auto-pilot early season form that has been at fault, yet with the coming of the cuckoo they have been transformed. In the past four years, they have reached the All-Ireland quarter-finals without fail, making the last four at the last two times of asking.
While performances might be lacking in the league, the same can’t be said for the championship when they have been so evident particularly on their opening day in Munster.
Last year, the county board executive claimed they had received an apology from the management for another abject league, only for the team to come alive against Tipperary for the second season running.
Twelve months on and there were no such demands despite a more dispiriting quarter-final defeat to Dublin, a 12-point reverse compared to the eight-point loss to Galway in 2014. Has the penny dropped with the county board that the league is habitually of no consequence to their team?
Best championship team? The great pretenders may be a more fitting description but nobody more than Limerick have lived up to the saying: It’ll be alright on the night. Here’s why:
2014 Second in Division 1B, lost quarter-final to Galway, 1-20 to 1-14 Donal O’Grady stepped down as co-manager and coach last April when the county board delayed in retracting a statement in which they asserted both he and TJ Ryan had apologised for the team’s league campaign. Six weeks later and Limerick had belied all that had been written and said about them, hitting Tipperary late to win by two points.
“You try to keep away from the papers but inevitably you hear things through the grapevine,” said Paul Browne after the game. “We had heard all that stuff and to be honest we were disgusted with it ourselves. We just wanted to prove to everyone, to the hurling nation, that we’re not going away.”
2013 first in Division 1B, lost promotion final to Dublin, 1-16 to 1-15 If Limerick felt hard done by when it was later revealed Paul Ryan should not have been allowed to play against them in the promotion final, they harnessed it the best way possible by shooting nine of the last 10 points of their Munster semi-final to beat Tipperary for the first time in championship since 2007. It made up for what they had squandered against Tipp the year before too. “I felt totally confident that we would win the game but you can’t say that too loudly in case people think you’re suffering from some type of a dementia!” said manager John Allen afterwards.
2012 second in Division 1B, lost promotion final to Clare, 0-21 to 1-16 Their narrow defeat to their neighbours after extra-time was made all the sourer by the fact they led by eight points with 25 minutes remaining. Davy Fitzgerald’s sideline intervention may have arrested their momentum. Limerick were looking pretty too against Tipperary deep into the second half of their Munster quarter-final only to be reeled in. “The bookies, the public and the press didn’t give us a chance,” remarked Allen. “The training has been great the last couple of weeks and it was a heroic performance, really.”
2011 promoted to Division 1, won Division 2 final v Clare 4-12 to 2-13 O’Grady guided them to eight wins from eight during the spring although the magnitude of those victories had to be questioned when they came against the likes of then severely weak Kerry and Westmeath sides. The decider with Clare was tense but alone hardly served as ideal preparations before facing Waterford. However, similar to a year later, Limerick had again looked the better team for large swathes of the game before John Mullane struck a deflected goal to steal the win. “I couldn’t fault any of the lads because I thought they were absolutely exceptional on the day,” remarked O’Grady.
It’s a common trend these last four years.
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