Tuesday 24 April 2018

All-rounder refuses to shirk a sporting challenge

But Stephen Kelly knows everything has to go right for Limerick, writes Marie Crowe

Playing rugby with Jerry Flannery and soccer with Kevin Doyle isn't something you'd see on the resumés of many inter-county footballers, but Limerick forward Stephen Kelly has done both and a whole lot more.

Although Kelly is predominantly a Gaelic footballer, he has never closed the door on other sports. He hurled in college and still lines out for his club. In 2004, Cork City asked him to go for a trial; he trained with the club for two months but decided against committing.

Kevin Doyle was there at the time along with a host of other top-class players. Since then other League of Ireland clubs have shown an interest but he has yet to take any of them up on their offers. Not long after Kelly's spell with Cork City, Mick Galwey got in touch and recruited him to play for his Shannon side.

Kelly hadn't played that much rugby since underage level but he adapted to the game easily, scoring two tries against Buccaneers in his League debut. Shannon went on to win the All-Ireland League in 2009 and the try-scoring winger was instrumental in that victory.

And Kelly didn't limit his endeavours to club rugby -- he was also capped for the Ireland juniors against England and Scotland.

It's rugby's off-season now so the Tralee-based Garda can give football, and today's clash with Kerry, his total focus. When the draw was made for the quarter-final, he was working at the station. His unit were also interested in the outcome so along with a group of co-workers they gathered around the TV to see who Limerick and Kerry would play.

"When we were drawn against Kerry there was a sense of disappointment all round," said Kelly. "We were hoping to avoid them, we're just sick of playing them and most people down around my home area are sick of watching us play them."

As far as he was concerned, it didn't matter who they got in the All-Ireland quarter-final, it was going to be tough competition, although when it comes to playing Kerry there is some additional psychological baggage. They were well beaten already this year by them in the Munster semi-final and since Kelly joined the panel in 2002 they have been defeated by Kerry in three Munster finals.

This year Limerick picked up the pieces from the latest defeat with a run through the qualifiers which has caught many by surprise. They saw off Offaly and Waterford before last weekend's dramatic, and controversial, win over Wexford. Ian Ryan's hotly disputed point deep in injury time dominated the headlines as referee Derek Fahy was heavily criticised for awarding the score after one of his umpires had waved it wide and the other had raised the white flag.

Kelly didn't think the referee featured much in the game until the end but when comparing the standard of rugby refereeing to football, the latter is more often than not found wanting. "In rugby, you might get one or two poor decisions but that's it," he says. "Referees have defined rules, there is probably a definition for every aspect of play. While in GAA you have no definition of a tackle, you have a situation where a player goes up to catch a kick-out he comes down and is surrounded and some referees pull him for overcarrying whereas others give him a free.

"In rugby, you wouldn't get that. If you carry the ball into contact and go down, there is a definition there and straight away the referee knows what it is, the players know what it is, a penalty is given and it's accepted.

"I think what frustrates everyone, players and supporters, is the lack of consistency. If they put down a few definitions for tackles and maybe

experimented in the league over the next few years and also tried out awarding a free-kick for a clean catch or getting rid of the pick-up things might be clearer and better for the game."

In Limerick, the hurlers command most of the attention, the crowds at their games are always far greater, while the footballers are often subjected to more intense levels of criticism and that can be hard to take.

"A lot of people who criticise us are people who wouldn't even come to watch a football match, they can't stand football. They just don't like it, that's their point of view but don't comment on Limerick football if you don't even follow it.

"There are people in the county who go to all our matches and those are the people who we care about. After we won in Portlaoise, a lot of the supporters ran onto the field, there were men and women crying. Those are the real supporters."

Kelly knows that to win today everything needs to go right for them and wrong for Kerry but one thing he's learned from rugby is how to win and going into the game he plans to do just that.

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