Monday 18 December 2017

Battle-hardened Limerick finally looking comfortable in own skin

New philosophy has revitalised the team after last year's agony, says Dermot Crowe

Limerick march before the 2014 Munster SHC final
Limerick march before the 2014 Munster SHC final

Dermot Crowe

After they lost last year's All-Ireland semi-final to Clare, the Limerick hurlers took a bus to a hotel in Portmarnock where they had a dinner reservation. They deliberately chose a coastal location with the intention of having a recovery session in the sea in preparation for the final. They had the meal as arranged. The swim wasn't necessary.

Semi-finals are hell to lose but the pain must be endured. The journey out of Croke Park for Limerick last August was a miserable one. Before they could leave two of their players had to be drug-tested which delayed departure. The bus journey home from Portmarnock paused in Portlaoise where those on the Tipperary side of Limerick, and elsewhere, went their separate ways.

They return today for another All-Ireland semi-final shot but much has changed. They have undergone two management transitions and none of the mania which swept the county after winning last year's Munster title has resurfaced. The fanatical crowd scenes when they overcame Cork in the final provided one of the liberating images of a season which blew the championship race wide open. When the semi-final arrived, Limerick followers outnumbered the Clare following three-to-one. Protecting players from those levels of hysteria is virtually impossible.

"We had worked hard all year, you think you are in the right place and things have gone relatively well," said their coach at the time, Donach O'Donnell. "And Kilkenny were out of the championship. Tipperary were out of the championship, we had beaten Tipp, and we had beaten Cork and that was in the back of your mind. This time last year we didn't have any fear of anyone. It was there for us, a huge opportunity."

Instead, O'Donnell left them at Portlaoise and the season had ended in a colossal anti-climax. "It was kind of a sad ending to the year really because there was no real final point." The following month he was gone, along with John Allen, who announced he would not be seeking an extension of his two-year term. When they saw Clare go on to win a thrilling final replay, the hurt deepened. O'Donnell admits it was hard to watch.

Whatever about the Limerick players, who O'Donnell describes as extremely dedicated and committed ("if anything we had to hold some of them back because we feared they were doing too much"), there is little doubt that the followers were supremely confident of defeating Clare. The form their neighbours showed the following month against Cork and in spells in the Limerick game was not there in abundance against Wexford and Galway in the two preceding rounds. They tiptoed quietly through the qualifiers. Limerick arrived with a noisy orchestra after winning Munster for the first time in 17 years.

Last week a press conference ahead of today's semi-final with Kilkenny wasn't attended by a single player, just the manager TJ Ryan (pictured) and coach Paul Beary. Even in these days of severely rationed feeds at media events like this, not putting a player forward is unusually cautious. But it is a sign of Limerick's distrust of attention and of the lessons learned from the past. They face Kilkenny as outsiders and with none of the inflated public expectation levels of last year. They are happy to keep it that way.

"I suppose a lot of it comes down to experience," says O'Donnell. "For a lot of them it was their first time playing a game like that in Croke Park. We were after coming off the high of winning the Munster Championship and it took us a while to refocus. Every night down in training there were crowds. It was very hard to get the team focused again."

And on the day Limerick seemed cursed. Seánie Tobin picked up an injury and Conor Allis, their first sub, an infection. Allis came on but had to go off again. Seamus Hickey, a key part of their game plan, went down with a serious injuryw. Declan Hannon had a cruel experience on frees. Shane Dowling fresh-aired a sideline. Clare, who in the final scored goals for fun, scored only one and that was a scrambled effort, yet a critical score which drove a wedge between the teams.

The players did all they could to leave the Munster final behind and channel their energies towards the semi-final. They celebrated the Munster final win and on the Monday night they brought the cup to the captain Donal O'Grady's home in Ballingarry. The next night they were back in training. "We did a recovery session," recalls O'Donnell. "We had a good chat about what we were going to do over the next few weeks."

A round of local club games in the six-week lead-up to the Clare game skewered the county team's preparations. "Normally we would build from three weeks out, but we had to change that slightly to allow some recovery after they were with their clubs," says O'Donnell. "Again, small things like that probably all add up."

As for their free-taking, there was little that could be done, with Hannon landing two from six in the first half, one of those misses a shot from in front of goal from well within range. Colin Ryan had a perfect nine from nine

"In fairness, Declan (Hannon) had a very good year, he played very well; apart from his scoring, his contribution from general play was very good, his work rate was excellent. In training Shane and Declan were taking frees and at the time Declan was shooting better than Shane. It was just one of those things, he obviously learned from it and put it behind him. And Clare hit frees from 90 yards and did not miss any."

At half-time, losing 0-6 to 1-10, they felt they could still get back in the game. "It didn't look good at the time but it still wasn't beyond our capabilities (to get back). I suppose again they never looked like scoring a goal but there was a bit of concern around the half-back line and midfield and they were shooting from there and they were going over.

"They hit some very good long-range points, from bad angles. I don't think there is a lot you can do about it. If I was a back and marking Tony Kelly and he was shooting from 80 yards from near the sideline, I would nearly be inclined to leave him and take my chance."

Afterwards, in the few words that they could muster in the dressing room, there was a message that winning a Munster title was not enough. They wanted to get back and win an All-Ireland. Losing their Munster title this year didn't devastate the side and their frame of mind in the quarter-final was impressive. Apart from the absence of hype, and the emergence of a new management team, Limerick have also gone back to a more direct, traditional style.

The short passing which was a feature of their play last year has been discarded. Kevin Downes and Shane Dowling are starting, rather than being used as impact subs, and Hickey has recovered from injury and has reverted to a defensive role. They face a Kilkenny team they pressed hard in the All-Ireland quarter-final in Thurles two years ago. They look comfortable in their own skin.

They will face up to Kilkenny with none of the huge expectations of last year's run

Allen's departure created the need for a fourth management appointment in five years. Donal O'Grady's surprise decision to leave after the league could have been a destabilising factor, but it appears to have had the opposite effect. Dave Clarke came in as a selector and they reverted to a game which is more familiar and trusted. The performances have stood the test. But today's game will ask more searching questions. They meet a team that's an old hand at matches and occasions like this.

But motivation won't be a worry. They need only think back to how last year's visit panned out and the months of sombre reflection that followed. Of the four semi-finalists in 2013, they were the one that suffered most; Dublin at least performed. A team holiday that was being planned never happened which might reflect their rising level of ambition. A Munster medal, while welcome, did not a great season make. When they regrouped for the Munster medal presentation, this season's league was already under way and their sights were set on the future. "There was a meal but no celebrations," says O'Donnell. "It was a lax enough affair."

The abiding memory was not of winning Munster, great as it was, but of losing to Clare. Every rescreening of those moments when they lifted the MacCarthy Cup can't have been viewed by Limerick's hurlers without a terrible sense of lost opportunity.

But time is a great healer. Opportunity knocks once more.

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