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Dublin defeat lit a spark - O'Mahony

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Limerick's Gavin O'Mahony. Picture: Matt Browne/SPORTSFILE

Limerick's Gavin O'Mahony. Picture: Matt Browne/SPORTSFILE

Limerick's Gavin O'Mahony. Picture: Matt Browne/SPORTSFILE

CAST your mind back to the first Saturday night in April. The Semple Stadium surface is unusually poor but the hurling is even worse.

That's not the real source of Shannonside angst, however. For the second year running, Limerick have booked their first-class ticket on the Allianz Express ... only to miss the blasted train as it pulled out of the station, destination Division 1A.

A year earlier, they had surrendered an eight-point lead as Clare stormed back to claim the Division 1B title and, with that, promotion to the top tier.

Now, here was Groundhog Day for John Allen's men as Limerick frittered away another glorious chance to rejoin the 1A elite. They landed the first three points of the 1B final but, crucially, failed to convert at least two goal chances in that initial blitzkrieg. Dublin soaked up the pressure, worked their way into a scratchy contest, and eventually prevailed by a single point, 1-16 to 1-15.

Thus, another year in 1B beckoned for a Limerick side left to ponder how their seemingly perennial spring purgatory would leave them shortchanged against the big boys in high summer.

"The weeks after the league final were probably the worst I have experienced," admits Gavin O'Mahony. "I know the league final dressing-room was the worst I have experienced with Limerick, because we had trained so hard and really believed that we deserved to be up in 1A.

"And then to fall as short as we did and as flat as we did on the night was ... just beyond belief."

O'Mahony's deflation was magnified by the sense that Limerick had lost "such a bad match" whereas, at the same time, a whole series of "cracking matches" were taking place in 1A. How would Limerick (and Dublin, for that matter) bridge the apparent gap in time for championship?

And yet bridge it they have, in spectacular fashion. Dublin's history-making journey only ended last Sunday, in epic All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Cork. Now it's Limerick's chance to build on a long-awaited provincial breakthrough – their first Munster title in 17 years – in the second semi-final against Clare this Sunday.

Given the desolation of that Thurles dressing-room last April, however, just how have they transformed their season?

Manager John Allen recounts training in Rathkeale the following Tuesday. "Players are tough," he maintains. "Players play inter-county and the next thing they play with their club the week after; they have to just turn themselves around.

"We all knew that we created enough chances to win that game against Dublin ... we knew we had played well, we lost by a point. It wasn't doom and gloom."

Progress

While accepting his players were "very down after the game", Allen goes on: "After the Tuesday night again, we were looking at a different challenge. I've referenced often enough that we ended up playing Kilkenny in Martinstown, and that gave everybody a sense of belief that the team was actually good enough to progress during the season. You went from that low to proof positive that the team was actually good enough. You have incrementally built on that since."

According to O'Mahony, losing to Dublin "just grounded lads again and kept lads honest for the next couple of weeks. We knew we had a big ladder to climb if we were to face Tipperary (in the Munster semi-final), and I suppose there was a fear that you could go out against Tipperary in the Gaelic Grounds and go away with your tail between your legs, which we were adamant we had to avoid."

Instead, they walked tall out of the Gaelic Grounds that June afternoon.

"The last 10 minutes against Tipperary was proof positive again that we could actually turn the game around and win," says Allen. "We were comprehensive winners in the end, the same against Cork (in the Munster final)."

The Limerick boss says you "can't underestimate confidence" and O'Mahony concurs. "It's my first Munster medal and you have to gain belief," says the wing-back. "It's relief more so than anything: when you train as hard as you do, that you can say 'Right, we can win something, we can win medals' ... the last couple of years have been very hard to be like that."

Which calls to mind Limerick's last championship trip to Croker, a 24-point massacre against Tipperary four years ago. O'Mahony had shot the lights out during their quarter-final victory over Dublin, only to suffer a free-taking nightmare the next day.

"I don't associate Croke Park with anything – I associate matches and performances and try and learn from them," the Kilmallock man insists. "If I was to go back to 2009, to try and draw on something, then I think it's backwards I am going. It's only the last two matches that I would be focusing on. We know our opposition – I nearly know who I will be marking." The task against Clare may be a familiar one, given their multiple clashes last season, but that won't make it any easier.

"They are probably the hardest-working hurling team in the championship. I mean their fitness levels will, no doubt, be through the roof," O'Mahony warns.

And tactically?

"The forwards seem to drift back and for a defender that's very difficult to stamp out, because you follow him and you leave space behind. You don't follow him, and you've lads scoring points in the middle of the field. So it is a tricky one."

But then O'Mahony offers his own belief: "My thinking is you would have to go man-for-man ... if you get bogged down with boards and tactics, you could go on up there and fall flat, like we did in the league final."

And Limerick don't want to go there again.

***

LIMERICK hurlers have announced an unchanged line-up for Sunday's All-Ireland SHC semi-final against Clare, with Seánie Tobin named in his customary corner-forward berth despite recent injury concerns over a broken toe.

Fellow doubt Kevin Downes is included in the subs.

LIMERICK (SH v Clare): N Quaid; S Walsh, R McCarthy, T Condon; P O'Brien, W McNamara, G O'Mahony; P Browne, D O'Grady; D Breen, J Ryan, S Hickey; G Mulcahy, D Hannon, S Tobin.


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