Wednesday 17 July 2019

Donnchadh Boyle: Limerick's bench press can provide decisive lift

Impact of men in reserve set to have huge say, and challengers have the edge over champions

Shane Dowling – here being fouled for the incident that led to the Limerick penalty, which he scored against Cork – has been making a big impact off the bench all summer. Photo: Sportsfile
Shane Dowling – here being fouled for the incident that led to the Limerick penalty, which he scored against Cork – has been making a big impact off the bench all summer. Photo: Sportsfile
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

The conventional wisdom insists that defending champions have to find something new if they are to retain their crown.

Across their ongoing quest for four in a row, Jim Gavin's Dublin footballers have proven themselves to be masters of introducing something new, year on year.

Big names have left but others have filled their shoes. Over the past few seasons the likes of Brian Fenton, Brian Howard and Niall Scully have become fixtures in the side with no discernible drop in standard.

And when Galway got over the line last year to win Liam MacCarthy for the first time since 1988, Galway selector Noel Larkin admitted they'd have to improve their panel.

Having used just 18 players in last year's final, Larkin insisted at Galway's media day that it was an area they had improved on this time around.

"At extra-time in the drawn game in Croke Park (against Clare) I looked around and I think there was five All-Stars on the bench for whatever reason, taken off, injury or had emptied the tank," Larkin explained.

"We have used 26 players this year in the championship. We have great depth in the squad and against Clare in extra-time our panel got us over the line. More depth is something we looked at and we are happy enough where we are going on that score."

On Sunday, Galway and Limerick are expected to test each other to the extreme. And it could well pan out that the bench will hold the key to where Liam MacCarthy resides this winter.

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In terms of players used, the sides stack up quite evenly.

On the face of it, Larkin's claims are hard to argue with. Of the 26 players Galway have used in their eight championship games to date, 20 have started games.

However of the remaining six, five players (Eanna Burke, Ronan Burke, Padraig Breheny, Shane Cooney and Sean Linnane) have made just a single appearance off the bench while Davy Glennon has been called on four times.

However, Donoghue's faith in his reserves hasn't been absolute. In the drawn game against Clare, Galway reintroduced Joseph and Conor Cooney with their season on the line.

When Gearoid McInerney was deemed unfit to play in the replay with the Banner, Galway didn't draft a defender off the bench but instead opted to shuffle Joseph Cooney back which saw Niall Burke was brought into the half-forward line.

One interpretation of those moves could be that Mícheál Donoghue doesn't feel his reserves are ready to carry the load required.

However, former Galway hurler Cyril Donnellan, who was part of the panel last year, believes the nature of the competition this summer hasn't given fringe players a chance to play their way into contention.

"I was speaking with even a few of the subs," Donnellan said. "Last year was a different championship structure, you could have a four-week window between games for panels and in-house games, to bump up the ladder as they say.

"But with the games coming in four out of five weeks, those lads struggled to get game time to get bumped up the ladder.

"I'm sure Mícheál would have preferred to get more game time into some of these players but just as it happened they haven't got the opportunity to show themselves.

"I still think he's emptying the bench every day but there hasn't been too much movement in the starting line-up."

Limerick have used 27 players, just one more than Galway, and 19 players have started across their seven matches.

Much was made of the impact that the Limerick bench made as they rescued their semi-final from the flames of defeat.

John Kiely's bench hit 2-6 to bring their tally of scores off the bench to 4-16 in their seven games, compared to Galway's 1-11.

It should be noted that 1-5 of that came against a team that started the year outside of the Liam MacCarthy Cup competition, Carlow, but considering the Munster men have played a game less, it suggests that Limerick might have more to work with.

And while Donnellan reckons the new system didn't allow Galway's subs to force their way into the reckoning, former Limerick hero Ollie Moran believes the intensity of the matches has improved the Treaty's young team no end.

"The other thing about the Munster Championship is the games never dropped with intensity," Moran offered.

"The games came so thick and fast you'd expect the levels of intensity would drop like with what happened in Leinster, but that never happened in Munster.

"Every game was a championship match, do or die with everything on the line, and that brings about a resilience and a hardness that could take years to form.

"And from that point of view a young Limerick team was always going to benefit and luckily enough we had the panel too. The fact that so many guys got exposed to that environment really quickly was massive."

The numbers suggest that Limerick might have the edge when it comes to a bench press but Galway have been working hard.

However, the likely loss of Brian Concannon through suspension, after he picked up a red card while on U-21 duty, is a blow.

Reports of an injury to John Hanbury could test them further.

Perhaps former Offaly hurler Michael Duignan put it best when he reckoned: "Limerick have the best squad in the country but Galway have best starting 15."

On Sunday we'll find out which will come out on top.

Irish Independent

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