Be prepared for a surprise
Limerick have the potential to dethrone the champions, says Jamesie O'Connor
I've heard it said, and oft repeated it myself, that being principal of a large second level school in this day and age is a recipe for dyeing your hair grey and taking five years off your life.
Now I don't know if my boss in St Flannan's, or for that matter, Colm O'Rourke elsewhere in these pages, would necessarily agree with me, but there are probably easier ways of making a living than trying to manage the daily problems and stresses of students, parents, auxiliary staff and teachers not to mention the headaches of exams, cutbacks and ever-dwindling resources.
Having retired as principal in the famed North Mon, Donal O'Grady has left most of those pressures behind. But having combined the day job in the past with a successful stint at the helm of the Cork hurlers, O Grady isn't someone likely to be fazed by the challenge or the long hours and hard grind modern inter-county management entails.
While the Limerick County Board haven't exactly covered themselves in glory over the years, and I can think of more than one occasion when the self-destruct button has been pressed, appointing O Grady to the helm was the best decision they've made in quite some time.
The carousel of different managers employed in the county over the last decade, and the lack of continuity and stability that has engendered, hasn't made it easy to generate progress or forward momentum, especially in a place shorn of any success at underage level. Given the inroads rugby has also made in that time in terms of capturing the hearts and minds of the young people in Limerick city and further afield, they need their flagship brand, their senior team, to be competitive and successful on the field of play.
Getting to the All Ireland final in 2007 gave a huge impetus in that regard. However, they failed to build on that in either of the subsequent years, and the Board's failure to sort out the mess of 12 months ago, and the subsequent disaster 2010 became, simply shouldn't have been allowed to happen. The emergence of Ardscoil Rís as a force at colleges level apart, it was hard to find anything positive about where Limerick were going until O'Grady's appointment was confirmed.
There's a definite sense that he's the right man at the right time for the job in hand. He ticks all the boxes in terms of the authority he exudes as well as the structure, organisation and professionalism he brings to the job. In addition, his fairness and reputation as a player's man first and foremost has enabled him to get this group of players thinking and playing as a team, and the closer this game has got the more I fancy their chances of pulling off an upset this afternoon.
I saw Limerick play Clare twice in the league and on both occasions, O'Grady's handprints were all over the team. There was a method and structure to their play and players were trying to do the right thing with the ball, even if it didn't always come off. They were far more efficient with the possession they had than Clare in the Division 2 final, and it was telling too that when Clare looked to have garnered the momentum of the game in the second half, O'Grady was quick to diagnose the problems, make the necessary changes and contribute in no small way to altering the outcome of the match. No doubt, from his position in the stand, Davy Fitz came away from the game with a bigger appreciation of the task in hand today.
As a rule, given his defensive expertise, teams coached by the Corkman are usually well organised and don't tend to cough up too many goals. However, what impressed me most about them this season is the space and clear-cut goal opportunities they created themselves up front. You could have driven a bus through the middle of the Clare defence on the night of that Division 2 final, but that wasn't by accident.
The fact that the league has unearthed some real talent is also a positive, but the Limerick management had the courage to give youth its head and stick with the younger players even when the stakes were at their highest in that decider. Looking back, it was a bold decision to include so many relatively inexperienced players on the night they beat Clare, but their performance vindicated that decision, and has strengthened their hand heading into the championship.
Defensively there's a lot of experience in the starting sextet. Although named at full-back, Seamus Hickey is likely to pick up John Mullane with Tom Condon, a player who's impressed me, moving to the edge of the square. Gavin O'Mahony, who played full-back that night in Ennis, will be far more at home on the wing and while his lack of pace is an issue in Thurles, Brian Geary will bring added physicality and tons of experience to the half-back line.
Looking at the Waterford attack, it would appear that much will depend on how Limerick cope with the threat posed by Mullane and Shane Walsh. Mullane, coming off another long club campaign with De
La Salle, will again be expected to shoulder much of the scoring burden, but Walsh beside him could potentially be Waterford's match-winner. On the evidence of a very good league, he appears to have a knack for getting goals and with Eoin Kelly seemingly out of the picture, that's something he may have to deliver on today.
However, with two championship debutants and a relatively inexperienced Maurice Shanahan joining the tireless Stephen Molumphy in the rest of the attack, it's a far less potent unit than the one of a few years ago when Dan Shanahan, Paul Flynn, and Kelly were in their prime.
Given that the manager's namesake should at least guarantee parity for Limerick in the middle of the field, this game may very well come down to how well the Waterford defence deal with the Limerick forwards. In that regard, the key match-up is likely to be how Wayne Hutchinson copes at full-back on debutant Kevin Downes. Downes first came to my attention in a schools match about four years ago when he had a hat-trick of goals scored and the game over inside the first ten minutes.
His instinct when he gets the ball is to head straight for goal, and I'm not sure Waterford realise how dangerous this guy potentially could be. It would worry me from a Waterford perspective that the perennial full-back problem still mightn't be satisfactorily resolved. Hutchinson doesn't play there regularly for his club, and from what I can gather, his natural instincts are those of a half-back. With a rookie corner-back as well, Limerick will look to exploit any weaknesses that may be there, and if they can get goals, the upset is on.
To counteract that, Waterford will be hoping that Brick Walsh can take a grip on proceedings at centre-back, but negating his influence is bound to have been high on Limerick's list of priorities. There are those in the county who believe he's the best midfielder in the country and should be picked there where he's capable of exerting more of an influence. That may be a moot point, but after the Tipp game last year, I'm inclined to agree. Either way, Limerick are likely to make every effort to minimise his impact, something that's easier said than done.
On paper, Waterford appear to have the better hurlers. They've operated all year at a much higher altitude in Division 1 than their Limerick counterparts, and the management have done a good job in bringing the younger talent in the county through and blooding a lot of players.
That said, this is a game fraught with danger for Davy Fitz's side. I'm not sure the younger Waterford players are of the same calibre as those that he's had to replace, or if they realise how difficult Limerick can be to beat in the championship when things are right. History shows that there's never anything between these counties, and my gut instinct tells me that if there's going to be a shock in the championship, it's going to be today. Limerick to win.
As big a game as today's is, next Saturday's Dublin-Galway clash in Tullamore arguably dwarfs it in comparison. For Galway in particular, losing just doesn't bear contemplating; but since their come-from-behind win over Kilkenny in the league in March, their form appears to have gone south. In their last three matches, Dublin hit 19 wides, monopolised possession and blew the game in Croke Park. Tipp wiped the floor with them in Salthill, and they failed to get the win they needed to make the final away to a below-strength Waterford side in Dungarvan.
Most worryingly, they were dreadful against Westmeath a side who failed to win a game in Division 2 this year in their opener last weekend. With Joe Canning struggling with injury and still question marks over his availability for next Saturday, it doesn't say much for where Galway are at when they felt compelled to bring him on with a quarter of an hour to go, risking him for the season in the process.
In 2006, Westmeath beat Dublin in the championship and were arguably better then than they are now. Kilkenny went to Mullingar in the next round and, as you'd expect from a side with serious ambitions, riddled them. Taking nothing away from Westmeath's effort last weekend, but Galway's performance was dreadful. Two weeks before they play their biggest game of the season, you'd expect to see evidence that the team is taking shape, and close to where they need to be, both physically and mentally. There was no evidence last Saturday that that's the case. The team selected had anything but a settled look about it, and with the club championship structure in Galway, you wonder how much collective training the team has been able to do.
Galway supporters may very well assume that they have better hurlers than Dublin and if they perform in Tullamore, they will win. But at the moment, there's absolutely no guarantee they'll perform, and consequently absolutely no guarantee they're going to win.
Simultaneously, Anthony Daly will have Dublin wired next Saturday and, with Tomás Brady back, close to his optimum starting 15 on the field. The Offaly result was ideal too in terms of bringing the team back down to earth and the Dubs know that this represents a glorious chance to take Galway's scalp.
Are they capable of it? Yes. But I expect Galway to play with an air of desperation. They have arguably more to lose and with either Limerick or Waterford potential opponents in the qualifiers in a fortnight's time, not to mention the prospect of Cork possibly a week later, the qualifier route is not the path they want to take. On the basis they will turn up, I expect them to shade it. But not without a genuine battle.
Finally, Cork to beat Laois and home advantage to see Antrim overcome Westmeath, both of which also throw in next Saturday.
Sunday Indo Sport