june 4 2018, 12:01am, the times
Limerick show signs of being the coming team but Galway are supreme
For every aspiring young team that succeeds in making the journey to a better place there’s a moment en route that in retrospect can be identified as a turn in the road. It might be a minor piece of silverware that helps build confidence and leads to bigger things, like Wexford with the Walsh Cup in 1996. It might be the burying of a statistical hoodoo or a first victory in decades against a traditional nemesis, like Clare’s Munster title in 1995.
In the case of John Kiely’s Limerick it may prove to be not even a win but rather a draw: that hard-earned point against Cork on Saturday night. A moral victory in trying circumstances? Let’s not go there; Limerick fans are the last people in the world to be patronised about moral victories. Instead let’s call it what it was in practical terms: an extremely useful point and one that could, come the end of the round robin, turn out to be the point that pushes Limerick over the quota and into the Munster final.
This was a result quarried out of rock without the aid of blasting equipment. The visitors to Páirc Uí Chaoimh saw their centre-back depart injured after six minutes — and didn’t lose. They played with 14 men for three quarters of an hour after their free-taker was sent off in the 25th minute — and didn’t lose. They had to cope for the last seven minutes without the services of their star performer and main attacking outlet, substituted after running himself into the ground — and didn’t lose. They missed a glorious chance to seal victory three minutes from time when Pat Ryan fluffed his pull from point-blank range, conceded two of the next three points — and didn’t lose.
A turn in the road? Too early to say. But it’s not too early to say that Limerick are potential Munster finalists and potential All-Ireland semi-finalists. Eleven of Saturday’s starting XV possess All-Ireland Under-21 medals from the past three years. In every way they look that entity beloved of hurling folk, a coming team.
They have a bench likely to prove a factor in tight games over the next couple of months, one stocked with young, fit, enthusiastic types. Not every All-Ireland is won by a team playing a 20-man game — last year’s wasn’t, for example, largely because Galway were never forced to break the glass and reach for their substitutes — but some are. Limerick are better placed to prosecute such an approach than most counties.
On Saturday, moreover, they had a breakout performance from Seamus Flanagan, who not only hit five points from full-forward but won frees, provided assists and generally drove the Cork defence to distraction with his ability to hold up the sliotar and distribute it. Given the memory of how Kevin Downes, Shane Dowling and Declan Hannon all exploded onto the scene as exciting young Limerick forwards before losing their way, it is clearly too early to be endowing Flanagan with messianic qualities. Interestingly, however, he was only a substitute for last year’s All Ireland Under-21 final. A late-maturing player is always an asset.
Saturday provided one valuable lesson for Flanagan and his contemporaries. Regardless of the treatment he was receiving from Sean O’Donoghue it was naive in the extreme for Aaron Gillane to think he could retaliate without consequences. Besides, he was trying it on with the wrong referee. Three years ago James Owens was in dereliction of duty when, shortly before half-time in the All-Ireland final, he booked Johnny Coen for clothes-lining Colin Fennelly. The contact was high and dangerous but Owens copped out. Faced with a similar stonewall crime on Saturday –— striking is a red-card offence, end of story — the referee applied the correct sanction.
Gillane, another of last year’s under-21 cohort, will learn from the episode. His manager being a secondary-school principal, of that we can be sure. In any case, had Gillane not been sent off Limerick would not have produced the performance they did in his absence. Sometimes things work out, just not in the way you expect.
In view of both the flat period Cork hit midway through the second half and Davy Fitz’s admission that Wexford were off the pace against Galway, questions will be raised about the efficacy of fitness regimes and the apparent hardships of having to line out three — and in Offaly’s case four — weekends in a row. Hardships? Really? We are constantly told how inter-county hurlers and footballers are professionals in all aspects of their lifestyle — training, diet, hydration, rest — bar the financial. Yet three games on consecutive weekends leaves them feeling like they’ve run a marathon? Please. In any case Cork scored five points after the 65th minute on Saturday. Scarcely the output of a bunch out on their feet.
To finish, a caveat. The opening ten minutes at Páirc Uí Chaoimh brought ten points and four wides. The game was that open, that fluent, and it bubbled away in the same manner till the final whistle. Two hours earlier Galway, who the previous Sunday had beaten Kilkenny by 1-22 to 2-11, saw off Wexford by 1-23 to 0-17, very nearly the same scoreline. On both occasions they kept their opponents below the 20-point mark. On both occasions, with the wind behind them in the first half, James Skehill went for distance off the tee and dumped puckout after puckout on the enemy 14-metre line, whereupon his forwards made use of their size and strength to go to war.
The All-Ireland champions are a grinding machine playing a different game to the one that took place in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
For all that Limerick look the coming team, they are almost certainly not coming just yet. Not while Galway are around.