Sunday 25 August 2019

Brendan Cummins: 'Brave new strategy will be needed to halt Limerick train'

Pauric Mahony of Waterford in action against Séamus Flanagan, left, and Kyle Hayes of Limerick during the match. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Pauric Mahony of Waterford in action against Séamus Flanagan, left, and Kyle Hayes of Limerick during the match. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Brendan Cummins

To me it's clear: Limerick are the best team in the country by four or five points, a side with such skill and work rate that all inter-county managers are now scratching their heads to find a solution.

How to beat them? The first thing is to not fall into the same trap as Waterford. They went long from both the goalkeeper and full-back line far too often and played right into Limerick's hands.

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Limerick try to force you to hit the ball down on top of their half-back line. For Waterford puck-outs Limerick's full-forward line would stand just inside the Déise '45'. They retreat and say to the full-back line: you can have the ball, we don't mind.

But when you look up the pitch you see a forest of green - they're like ants in the middle third. The key is to play two or three passes off the shoulder and then hit the ball in from beyond your '65', but Waterford were forced to go long too early.

That's a recipe for getting isolated and turning the ball over.

But a lot of teams will have got the message. It's going to take a lot of bravery but the team that puts more players behind the ball and runs the ball up the field in waves is going to be the one that gets success against Limerick.

That's where Waterford's troubles began: they had Pauric Mahony and Austin Gleeson playing very deep but they never brought them into the game. They looked isolated playing in their own half-back line.

Contrast that with Tom Morrissey and Gearoid Hegarty: they switch wings and give you a different question every time.

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With hindsight you can say Waterford not changing tack was stupid but to do otherwise, you need confidence in the drills. Over the next few weeks an awful lot of county teams will be practising getting to their own '65' without playing the ball more than 20 yards.

If you can drill that and everyone knows what to do, you have a platform to beat Limerick. If you're not doing that you end up like Waterford, getting bogged down.

Their appetite to defend is key. Limerick swarm you, isolate you, choke you - a case in point was how they suffocated Waterford on their own puck-outs yesterday.

The pockets of success for Waterford were by creating an overlap in the middle third. That's the only way to beat Limerick - there's a huge reward for being brave inside your own '65' and running the ball out, so the corner-back plays a one-two with the wing-back and you forget about hitting it any more than 20 yards.

Limerick's process is so strong that everybody has clarity on what their role is. When they get the ball they're spinning it around, they have willing runners coming from every angle, and they take massive pride in taking it off you, a bit like Pep Guardiola's Barcelona.

They're committing two, three or four extra bodies to that middle third. Some would call it kamikaze hurling because it leaves players free elsewhere, but they got to Waterford so fast when they had the ball. The technique in the tackle is obviously drilled: hand in, eye on ball and hurl up to cover release.

It takes huge confidence and trust to sprint off your man and back yourself to get to the ball carrier before he gets his head up, but that's their key trait in defence.

They also have no shortage of stars. Aaron Gillane was absolutely amazing yesterday. The only time I've seen an inside forward do that kind of damage with power and wrists was Eoin Kelly.

Then Cian Lynch is just a wizard around the middle third. Most county teams have skilful players, but most don't have the skilful players with the desire to work that he has. It's like finding a diamond.

On TV we only see him coming into shot but what you don't see are the runs he makes back to cover the number 10 or 11 or 12 that the opposition has to make sure Declan Hannon is able to sit.

But all over, Limerick are making good decisions and working for each other, and the key question now for the rest is: can you change your strategy in a short time specifically to play against them?

To me, Clare have the best shot. Why? Maybe it's because they've also been trained by Paul Kinnerk so the styles are similar.

They have been Limerick's kryptonite in their last couple of matches. They flood the middle third with as many bodies as they can, and your key against Limerick is not bodies ahead of the ball, but bodies in line and behind it so they can run it rugby-style up the pitch.

The hype around Limerick is only set to increase and that's the biggest test heading into the Munster Championship. The shadow boxing is over, and all teams from here on will be showing their hand.

Some will feel mirroring Limerick's style may be enough, but for me a team has to have its own identity and values and make them stronger than all-comers - that includes the reigning All Ireland and league champions.

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