Wednesday 23 October 2019

Colm Keys: 'Limerick boldly go where so few - except Kilkenny - have gone before them'


Tony Óg Regan has joined Limerick’s back-room team. Photo: Sportsfile
Tony Óg Regan has joined Limerick’s back-room team. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

It is a measure of the difficulty involved that, outside Kilkenny, no other county since Galway in 1989 has followed up an All-Ireland win in September with a league hurling title the following spring.

Of course, it became routine business during Brian Cody's reign with league titles added in 2003, 2009, 2012 and 2013 within months of one of their 11 All-Ireland titles on his watch.

But even making a final as All-Ireland champions has been a challenge. Tipperary managed it in 2017, losing heavily to Galway, 25 years on from Babs Keating's All-Ireland winners falling short against Limerick.

In between, Kilkenny's only league final loss as All-Ireland champions was to Waterford in 2007.

Limerick's previous All-Ireland champions in 1973 followed up with a league final appearance in 1974, which they lost heavily to Cork.

The challenges speak for themselves, especially in counties where championship success has been historically elusive.

There are many different directions that a hurler or a footballer, in a county where a gap has been bridged, can be pulled.

For Kilkenny, success became so commonplace that it seemed the natural order of things to keep the foot to the floor every spring. If there wasn't such a crossover with All-Ireland club finals, they might well have added to that league haul.

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The triumphant 1989 Galway league team was on its second All-Ireland title the previous September when they reaffirmed their dominance over Tipperary in the final.

Read more: Barron looks to make the most of upturn in Waterford's fortunes

Perhaps the value of a league title has eroded in the face of so many structural changes to the competition through the years. And right on cue, next year it will revert to the way it was prior to 2012.

Unlike its football equivalent, it has never seemed completely at ease with itself. Eights rounds slotted into nine weekends (10 because of the weather postponements to round five games) is a competition in quite a hurry.

But whatever context it presents itself in, it's quite an achievement for Limerick, and a measure of the strength and well-being of their squad, that they have pressed on this far when arguably the most competitive Munster championship of all time looms over the horizon.

If ever there was a time to take a spring step back, for them it might have been this year.

They've been helped by the softer side of the draw, courtesy of topping 1A, with Laois and then Dublin a less taxing route than Clare and Galway - as Waterford have experienced.

But they have still looked a powerful, confident side, sure of their roles and sure of each other's backs.

Off the field, the departure of Caroline Currid as their sports psychologist has been mitigated by the arrival of Tony Óg Regan, the former Galway hurler who has been involved with the Tipperary hurlers in the past.

Gary Kirby, the last man to captain a league-winning Limerick side in 1997, saw that at first hand last Sunday when Gearoid Hegarty quarrelled with a Dublin opponent at one stage in their semi-final.

"You see the likes of Diarmaid (Byrnes) going over in that instance and they're talking to each other, they're backing each other up, getting behind each other, same with Aaron Gillane and Conor Boylan.

"They're challenging for positions in attack but Aaron is still going over encouraging, pushing his team-mate on," noted Kirby.

Kirby is "surprised but not surprised" that Limerick are back in Croke Park so quickly with the weight of history against them.

"All these lads know is winning really so we shouldn't be surprised. They've had a lot of success with the U-21s. OK, they won a senior title last August which is the big one but they have long developed a winning habit and John (Kiely) is a shrewd guy. The message has been right from the start," added Kirby.

Limerick have been able to rotate sufficiently to allow the likes of Paddy O'Loughlin and Conor Boylan a clear view of the first 15 while Tom Condon has taken his opportunity in Mike Casey's absence.

But if Sunday's team doesn't return at least 13 of their All-Ireland winning starters from last August that would be the only surprise.

All-Ireland champions in their position have been blown off course with what has followed and that may yet be the case later this summer for Limerick.

But right now they are taking things in their stride impressively and physically they are developing an edge reminiscent of some of Cody's previous Kilkenny teams. A league final place that so few, outside Kilkenny, have managed, illustrates that.

Irish Independent

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