Sunday 25 August 2019

Colm Keys: 'Limerick possess best squad in the country - now is the time to use it'

Limerick’s Peter Casey attempts to get away from Cork’s Robert Downey as the All-Ireland champions suffered a surprising defeat last time out. Photo: Sportsfile
Limerick’s Peter Casey attempts to get away from Cork’s Robert Downey as the All-Ireland champions suffered a surprising defeat last time out. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

The provincial hurling round-robin series is still too much in its formative stage to be trying to detect meaningful trends.

Last year's propensity for home wins, 11 from 20 with three draws, has turned a little this year with just three wins - Kilkenny against Dublin, Galway against Carlow and Tipperary against Waterford - from nine games (two have been drawn) over the opening three weekends.

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What hasn't changed much, however, is the perceived disadvantage of coming in 'cold' on the second weekend of action in either province.

Last year Waterford flew into a storm against Clare in Cusack Park when, admittedly, anything that could go wrong did, with the loss of Kevin Moran to a red card and a raft of injuries.

Wexford did win their opening game at home against Dublin when pitched into the thick of it on the second weekend in Leinster, but this year they could only draw against the same opponents as Limerick lost to Cork by seven points.

The All-Ireland champions are unlikely to have given any thought to the scheduling over the last 10 days, focusing instead on a malfunctioning puck-out strategy that was their bedrock last summer and poor execution of everything from sidelines to clearances from defence.

So much of what became their trademark last year was disrupted by a ravenous Cork team so determined to salvage their season.

Being champions after such a long absence isn't easy. Clare had only a 16-year gap when they won it in 2013, but it came ahead of projections and that brings its own challenges, none of which are physical.

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There were no obvious 'red flags' for Limerick, certainly none visible on the surface. They had won the league most impressively, becoming the first team, outside Kilkenny, to back up an All-Ireland win in this way since Galway in 1989.

But until they were out in the middle of it, against a team they hadn't beaten in normal time in three meetings over the previous 12 months, they could never really know.

They've been quick to pull the shutters down since. Cian Lynch was due to attend a Centra sponsorship launch last week, where there would have been an obligation to speak, but withdrew between the defeat and the event on the following Tuesday.

Perhaps he had good reason, but his withdrawal at such a late stage from an engagement like it prompted an obvious assumption.

For the Limerick management, there will have been, and continue to be, a stern examination of team selection.

It's only one defeat and the need for alarm bells to ring is upon them but maybe the selection has become straightforward in Limerick, so predictable, that it invited a certain complacency.

Last year, incredibly, their starting team against Tipperary in May was the same 15 which started against Galway in the All-Ireland final three months later. Excluding the Carlow qualifier, when they loosened the reins, they picked the same team for five of their other seven games.

Aaron Gillane's suspension for the red card he picked up against Cork kept him out of the subsequent Waterford game and Shane Dowling was still preferred to Gillane for the Clare game in Ennis.

But, Carlow apart, for the remaining three games against Kilkenny, Cork and Galway, the same 15 that started the opening two games were back together again.

Why change a winning team? And ultimately it was justified by the outcome.

This spring, John Kiely and his backroom didn't deviate much from the tried and trusted. Again, why would they? For the league semi-final, 12 of the All-Ireland final 15 were on duty. For the final that number was up to 13. For last week's game, only Peter Casey had managed to alter their thinking as he was chosen ahead of Seamus Flanagan.

The natural temptation for the Limerick management will be to place trust in the vast majority of those same players just two weeks later, given how far they have come together in the last 12 months.

But if this was a pre-2018 qualifier and not a second-round provincial round-robin game, a seven-point Munster Championship defeat would surely be prompting significant change.

If they cross codes and look at the Dublin footballers, who are now on a 29-match unbeaten championship run, team selection has rarely been as predictable. Even as champions, Dublin are always seeking to shake up personnel.

The question, in Limerick's case, is who can make it better.

Limerick have the best squad in the game. The trouble for them in the Gaelic Grounds the last day was how indifferent, for once, the impact off their bench was. Casey was first off last week, restoring the All-Ireland final 15 for a brief period.

He was one of four forwards whipped off as they scored 1-7 from play, 1-4 from Graeme Mulcahy.

Last year replacements contributed 5-16 to their cumulative scoring effort in eight games compared to Galway's 1-12 in nine games. In the semi-final against Cork, albeit with 20 minutes of extra-time, they hit 2-6.

Casey didn't score but his contribution around the pitch otherwise was immense. However, last Sunday week, none of those who came in registered.

Even in a game going away from them as it was, that registers as a concern.

At the Munster Championship launch earlier this month, Kiely reflected on the intensity of the schedule and ventured how their team selections could have stretched beyond 16 different starters.

"If I had any learning last year I think I could've used a few more players during the championship in that series of games," he suggested.

That time may be upon him.

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