Frank Roche: 'League triumph a springboard for Limerick, but why not Mayo?'
IT was curious to take in the mixed messages from two very different Allianz League finals on Sunday.
Limerick cruised to their first NHL Division 1 title in 22 long years and it was all very routine, ominously matter-of-fact - and worrying for every other pretender to their Liam MacCarthy throne.
It was like watching Dublin with sticks. Even the accumulation of multiple wides from the equally prolific and profligate Aaron Gillane (pictured) left you thinking there was so much more in Limerick once they fine-tuned for summer; that, and Joe Canning’s injury travails, strengthened the sense that Liam MacCarthy is Limerick’s to lose.
And it is ... but if last summer’s magical mystery ride taught us anything about hurling, it’s that shoo-ins don’t exist. Escaping Munster will be a challenge in itself.
Meanwhile, later on Sunday, the footballers of Mayo turned a four-point half-time deficit into a thrilling four-point win over Kerry. Thus ended their long league wait - 18 years - and they celebrated with a fist-pumping gusto not normally associated with a team whose one true ambition can only be satisfied in September.
The result has got people thinking that Mayo haven’t gone away, you know. That the eternal bridesmaids might yet walk up the All-Ireland aisle again - and this time not be jilted at the altar.
It remains a relatively long shot, with Mayo’s Sam Maguire odds shaved from 12/1 to 8/1 third favourites after Sunday. Even the statistic that they’re the only team to beat Kerry this spring - twice! - doesn’t propel them above Peter Keane’s young charges, now priced 9/2.
But Kerry are not the ultimate obstacle, and a queue of pundits aren’t rushing to acclaim our new league kingpins as champions-elect for one logical reason: the spectre of Dublin looms large.
The four-in-a-row holders are odds-on because of their pedigree, glut of selection options, seen-it-all manager, and proven track record of getting the job done down the home straight of a final.
Three defeats in a regulation league season for the first time under Jim Gavin won’t alter that.
What has changed is the perception that this year’s SFC race could be another predictable stroll to its inevitable end; that Dublin’s penchant for patient, pinpoint excellence would produce that strange contradiction - brilliance that bores, through no fault of their own.
Why the subtle shift? Two things. Firstly, Dublin’s recent loss to Tyrone - because it happened in Croke Park at the latter end of the league, because of Tyrone’s tactical blueprint and because of Dublin’s erratic, at times panicky, response to this challenge.
Secondly? Mayo’s latest resurrection. There were perfectly understandable fears that they were going nowhere after Newbridge last June. Too much mileage; too many body-blows; too much of everything except the marquee forwards that never seemed in sufficiently plentiful supply.
Even after Sunday, it’s debatable whether their attack will be good enough when it really matters. But they have won a league even in the absence of their all-time top scorer (Cillian O’Connor). A handful of newcomers (led by Matthew Ruane) and a prodigal manager (James Horan) have provided crucial fresh impetus; and some of the old guard (notably Aidan O’Shea and the ageless Keith Higgins) are playing as well as ever.
And when Mayo play well, they are arguably the only team with the physicality and ferocity to push Dublin into a state of high-summer uncertainty.
One final thought. Between 2003 and ‘18, nine out of 16 NFL winners went on to lift Sam: Tyrone, Kerry three times, Cork and Dublin four times under Gavin. It’s not a foolproof indicator but the league does matter.