Shane Dowling's late spark ignites Limerick comeback
LimericK 2-18 Tipperary 2-16 (Munster SHC Semi-Final)
It had all the ingredients to be one of the best Munster championships of all time and, so far at least, expectations are being realised.
Semple Stadium, Thurles has, in the space of seven days, hosted two stunningly entertaining games, one which finished level and a second which reached even higher quality levels before settling on a two-point winning margin for Limerick.
Thousands of Limerick supporters dashed onto the pitch afterwards to share the special moment with the team as they celebrated a semi-final victory which appeared to have slipped away between the 62nd and 68th minutes.
Limerick had suffered enough setbacks in those six minutes to suggest that it wasn't going to be their day and, when Tipperary sub Denis Maher hoisted over a point two minutes from the end of normal time to put his side three points ahead, the case seemed to have been settled.
Among the negatives for Limerick in the preceding six minutes were a disallowed goal (Graeme Mulcahy's effort was ruled out by referee Barry Kelly, who judged that Padraic Maher had been fouled) and wides from Seamus Hickey and Kevin Downes.
With energy levels dropping after almost 70 minutes of relentless endeavour, Limerick might well have been squeezed out, but they regrouped for one final drive and were rewarded with a match-winning finish.
Dowling brought his total to 2-9 (1-9 from frees) with a 69th-minute goal to bring the sides level before sub Thomas Ryan and Hickey fired over stoppage-time points.
Limerick's timing was perfect, edging in front just before the finish line, leaving Tipperary with no time to launch a rescue bid. Given the way an absorbing contest had ebbed and flowed all afternoon, it's quite likely that Tipperary would have recovered, but, unlike earlier on when they overturned Limerick leads on three occasions, the Premier County had run out of wriggle room.
And so for a second successive year, Tipperary have been dispatched to the treacherous All-Ireland qualifier course by Limerick, whose bid to retain the Munster title is clearly matched by a structure and a determination which could well make it happen.
Limerick's irritation at what they perceived as a lack of respect for their status as defending Munster champions was very much in evidence over the last few weeks and, while it wasn't going to be a match-winner on its own, it provided a perfect context to sharpen their focus.
Their anaemic effort against Galway in the Allianz League quarter-final, followed by the controversial departure of Donal O'Grady, lowered Limerick's stock on the prediction markets, especially when compared with Tipperary, who had improved substantially from mid-March on.
However, as history has so often showed, the weeks between league and championship can redefine a season in a manner which bears no resemblance to what unfolded earlier on.
That was very much the case yesterday as Limerick retraced their steps back to the adventurous ways which yielded wins over Tipperary and Cork in last year's Munster championship.
They returned to the fundamentals long associated with the county, hurling with a directness which was easy to read but difficult to counteract.
It caused particular difficulties for Tipperary on the marking side of their game, as evidenced by Dowling's 1-9 return from Limerick frees.
Limerick won 12 frees in the course of the game, 10 of which brought scores on a day when range or angle were equally irrelevant to Dowling whose precision striking did so much to fashion victory. He pointed three frees early on before doubling the return with a superbly-struck 20-metre effort in the 16th minute which rifled into the Tipperary net.
It was cancelled out six minutes later when 'Bonner' Maher powered through on the Limerick goal before deftly clipping the ball to the net. It broke up a good period for Limerick but they didn't allow the setback to deflate them as they pulled four points clear after 24 minutes.
Tipperary's response was strong and effective and they were level by half-time (1-8 each). All but 0-2 of Limerick's first-half total had come from Dowling's frees while Tipp had scored 1-4 from open play.
Tipperary started the second half as positively as they ended the first and made what they thought would be a decisive break when Ger Ryan goaled in the second minute. Having conceded an unanswered 1-4, Limerick faced a real test of character, a challenge they enthusiastically embraced.
They shot four points in six minutes to go back in front before Tipperary hit a productive run, during which they outscored Limerick by 0-7 to 0-3 to leave themselves looking well primed for victory. However, Limerick refused to yield and had their gritty defiance rewarded with a finishing burst, which yielded 1-2.
Once again, Tipperary failed to close out a game from a promising position, a problem that Eamon O'Shea acknowledged as a real issue.
"We are very close to finishing it out, but very close doesn't mean anything in sport. There are winners and there are losers. You are talking to losers," he said.
O'Shea will have been especially disappointed with the number of times that efforts for points dropped into the welcoming hand of Limerick goalkeeper Nickie Quaid. Also, Limerick got in an unusually high number of blocks – with man-of-the-match Richie McCarthy especially effective – which suggests Tipperary's striking wasn't as neat or as crisp as it should be at this time of year.
For all that, they came desperately close and, despite this setback, should not be written off as All-Ireland contenders. The road is certainly longer and fraught with all sort of dangers, but there was still enough about Tipperary's better periods yesterday to suggest that if they can prolong them, their All-Ireland prospects may yet be quite good.
Meanwhile, Limerick have reached successive Munster titles for the first time since the mid-1990s.
Stability has been restored and now they can sit back and watch Cork, Waterford and Clare vie for the right to meet them in the Munster final on July 13. Adding to their delight is the fact that yesterday brought them their first championship win over Tipperary in Thurles for 41 years.
The green brigade need no reminding of how the 1973 season ended and, as they filed out of Thurles yesterday, a September meeting with Liam MacCarthy was very much the target.
Scorers – Limerick: S Dowling 2-9 (1-9fs), K Downes, D O'Grady 0-2 each, D Hannon, P Browne, G Mulcahy, T Ryan, S Hickey 0-1 each. Tipperary: G Ryan 1-2, S Callanan (3fs), J O'Dwyer (1f) 0-5 each, Patrick Maher 1-0, N O'Meara, N McGrath, L Corbett, D Maher 0-1 each.
Limerick – N Quaid 7; S Hickey 8, R McCarthy 9, T Condon 7; P O'Brien 7, W McNamara 7, G O'Mahony 7; J Ryan 7 P Browne 7; S Dowling 9, D O'Grady 7, D Hannon 7; G Mulcahy 6, K Downes 7, S Tobin 5. Subs: T Ryan 6 for Tobin (61), M Ryan for Mulcahy (71).
Tipperary – D Gleeson 7; C Barrett 8, Padraic Maher 8, M Cahill 8; J Barry 6, B Maher 7, C O'Mahony 6; K Bergin 6, S McGrath 6; G Ryan 8, Patrick Maher 8; J O'Dwyer 8; N McGrath 6, S Callanan 6, N O'Meara 5. Subs: L Corbett 6 for Barry (55), D Maher 6 for O'Meara (61), C O'Brien for Cahill (65), S Bourke for O'Dwyer (68), T Stapleton for S McGrath (71).
REF – B Kelly (Westmeath)