Saturday 17 August 2019

Dermot Crowe: 'Fine margins push you front and centre when anything is possible'

Seán Finn celebrates Limerick’s All-Ireland win in Croke Park last August. Photo: Sportsfile
Seán Finn celebrates Limerick’s All-Ireland win in Croke Park last August. Photo: Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

It is remarkable how quickly our perceptions shift, swept off in another direction. Like the opinion we had of Limerick a year ago, or two, and the one we hold of them now.

They are getting all the looks now, but it seemed fine to suppress all thoughts of them the evening they exited the 2017 championship in the qualifiers at Nowlan Park. Perhaps we didn't offer them the attention they warranted, and didn't appreciate how close they had been. As ever, a win can give a team incredible momentum. Even an unconvincing win. Any win.

But how could you have done otherwise? There is only so much you can absorb and the championship is all about now, and the immediate future. The next ball. The next day. Yesterday becomes old news. We get to barely acknowledge how close Kilkenny were - or Cork - to ending Limerick's interest in the championship last year. We are charmed by the winners. No matter that but for the intervention of Tom Morrissey in the dying moments of the Kilkenny match, Limerick were dust. Or Shane Dowling's entrance in the All-Ireland semi-final against Cork. Or Nickie Quaid's save on Seamus Harnedy as he prepared to pull the trigger.

Or, go back farther, and you wonder did the defeat in Ennis to Clare serve as the mother of all blessings in disguise to a team that had momentum but maybe too much of it too soon - especially if they had designs on winning a MacCarthy Cup.

Missing out on the Munster final did not land Limerick a calamitous blow. Instead they removed themselves from the spotlight - and relieved some of the pressure that had been building. It is doubtful if ever a county that had not won in so long, 45 years, had been tipped so gingerly as Limerick were throughout last spring. For a team with it all to prove that seemed too onerous a burden and fraught with danger.

The chastening lesson, when it came, was fortuitously timed - they could recover. Clare went to the Munster final and suffered another damaging defeat to Cork who have been - there is no other way of putting this - their superiors since the dramatic events of 2013.

And Cork continue to be an enigma within an enigma. A whisker from winning the semi-final of the All-Ireland against Limerick, another close shave. Munster winners two years running. Remember? Everything and anything is possible with Cork. They are the championship defined.

But Limerick, having added the league title at the end of March, are the team nobody can look beyond. They are getting all the looks. Cork manager John Meyler was asked about them in a recent interview and had to light-heartedly remind the interviewer that it was Tipperary they had to face first.

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The Munster Championship remains terrifyingly competitive. Five contenders, all with realistic prospects of winning the province and the All-Ireland. And of the nine leading contenders, with Carlow the rank outsiders, all have legitimate designs on at least reaching the final eight. For all of hurling's faults and geographical bias, you will not get that number of contenders for the Sam Maguire.

Structural tweaking has removed the anomaly which had Waterford, Tipperary and Wexford playing on four successive weekends last year, but the round robin remains compacted like ice and a huge challenge to all squads where recovery is king, mental and physical. Waterford will return to Walsh Park, hosting its first Munster Championship match since Ken McGrath made his debut against Tipperary in 1996. They face Clare in an 11,000 sell-out on Sunday next. On the same day Cork will host Tipp in a match which always has its own intrinsic value and tradition but will have major implications for how their respective seasons pan out. A win in the opening round, especially at home, being deemed an imperative if you want to progress.

Leinster has less allure currently as Kilkenny rebuild and Galway grapple with injuries, while Dublin and Wexford are in uncertain territory. But remember how good Galway looked this time last year? Dublin go to Kilkenny next Saturday night to get the hurling championship under way. They felt a little thieved in Parnell Park last year. But beating Kilkenny in their home place is a big ask of Mattie Kenny's developing team.

Such fine margins. Jake Morris will hopefully go on to have a long and distinguished career for Tipperary. But for now his name is part of last year's catalogue of missed chances and lessons learned. A goal chance that came off the post let Clare off the hook and prompted a late swing that put Tipp out of the competition.

A reminder of how nothing is permanent when it comes to the championship and sometimes it does not bear thinking about how close you were to having had an entirely different ending. Limerick will know that as much as any other county. They have seen the far side for long enough.

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