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Dreams on the line...

TJ RYAN is reflecting on his next sideline battle-of-wits, surely the biggest thus far of his burgeoning career in management.

"Every day is a school-day for me in this job. There's always something to learn," he admits, before adding: "I don't think I need to say anything about Brian Cody. He's been the best."

The clash of bosses is a fascinating 
sub-plot to the already intriguing on-field collision of Limerick and Kilkenny in this Sunday's All-Ireland SHC semi-final.

Ryan is in his maiden campaign at this level. He was joint-boss until the third week of April, when Donal O'Grady resigned as coach and co-manager in a row with county board chiefs that threatened to derail Limerick's championship before a sliotar had been pucked.

Throne

Cody is in his 16th year on the Kilkenny throne. In that time he has amassed nine All-Ireland titles; the six 'unsuccessful' seasons comprise three final defeats, two semi setbacks and one quarter-final loss.

Last year's incongruous exit - gone before August, gone before Croker - has sparked a typically defiant riposte: Kilkenny have followed up a third consecutive league title with their first Leinster success since 2011.

The contrast with Limerick's wannabe kingpins could scarcely be starker. Yet there is a steely belief in the camp and Ryan, as sole supremo, has hit the ground running. They 'ambushed' Tipp - again. The Munster final defeat to Cork was not without honour. Then they walloped Wexford with a ruthlessness that was, well, almost Kilkenny-esque.

Talking to reporters at the Limerick press night, Ryan's rapid delivery masks a refreshing candour. As a management team, he says, "we would review what we've done in different games to date. Maybe sometimes when you win, it looks like the decisions you made were right. Maybe in the Munster final we should have moved a little bit quicker or sharper."

He is bullish about his own team's evolution; less so about whether they can actually seal the deal against Kilkenny.

"We believe this is a team going places. This is a team that has got a lot of things to prove to a lot of different people and we feel that basically we can go and do that," the Garryspillane man declares.

Cue a leading question that Sunday is different to previous battles with the Cats, where Limerick would have travelled more in hope than confidence?

"Kilkenny are still 4/9 in Paddy Power," he retorts. "Do you know what I'm saying? We still have to go and do that."

He was enthused by Limerick's first half finishing in the quarter-final 
(3-15) but can still nitpick about several of their 10 wides before the break or the 1-3 left behind by Wexford when the game was still a contest. He reckons Limerick have reached 80 to 85pc of their potential. Now they'll need closer to the max.

Battles

"I'd back myself and our team in battles all over the pitch whether it's physicality, hurling, pace. This team has been around the block a while ... I think the experience of last year will stand to them. I thought we've hurled really well in all the games we've played this year in championship. I think we're on an upward curve here," he surmises.

"At the same time," he adds, "I fully understand we're playing a team that's been the best team over the last decade, without a doubt. Really good. Best manager. Some of the best players that ever hurled. Under no illusions there." Ryan inherited a team still absorbing the conflicting emotions of last summer, when they ended a 17-year Munster famine only to freeze against Clare. This time, it's clear, they are trying to avoid the frenzy of expectation that accompanied the long run-in to that semi-final.

Asked if the hype got out of hand, he says: "We hadn't won a title in a long time, it would be a natural thing. The probable answer to that is, to some degree, it did ... Limerick were slight favourites of the four and that definitely would have added to it, and maybe the fact Kilkenny and Tipp were out of it."

Prove

Next question: do the players still have lots to prove after last year's semi-final?

"I don't know," Ryan demurs. "But they definitely don't have anything to prove to themselves, the management team or the internal structures.

"Externally, there is still a little bit of that going on. I referred to it briefly after the game against Wexford, where I just read in one of the papers where the defeat in the Munster final was 'demoralising' and a 'typical Limerick performance'. I didn't know what that was about. That (perception) is obviously still there and, from our point of view, the last day you'd have to wonder how much of it was Wexford being bad and how much of it was Limerick being good?

"That's all down to opinion. From the team's point of view, we just basically wanted to get back to Croke Park and we're back there now. In fairness, even Davy Fitz the last day said 'Limerick are back now'. Let's see."


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