Eamonn Sweeney: 'Limerick have desire and talent to rule hurling roost'
All-Ireland champions look good bet to retain their title - but Cats are in precipitous decline
The hurling snobs are right. There really is a better team than the Limerick one which won last year's All-Ireland. It's the Limerick side playing in this year's league. Their trouncing of Kilkenny in Nowlan Park was as complete a performance as you'll see at this time of year.
Some teams, like the Clare hurlers of 2013, fall away after winning an All-Ireland. Others, like Clare in 1995, gain strength and confidence from handling the Liam MacCarthy Cup. Limerick look to be in the latter mould.
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Nowlan Park may be hurling's securest citadel. Kilkenny had lost just five league games there in the past decade. But yesterday's game was effectively over with half an hour left as Limerick led by 2-14 to 0-7. The rest of it was just running down the clock, 'garbage time' as the Yanks call it. When has that last happened to Kilkenny?
What may please John Kiely most is the sense of extra weapons being added to an already bristling armoury. Shane Dowling contributed a couple of telling cameos late in last year's championship but that hardly sufficed for a player of his gifts.
Yesterday he was a central figure, setting the ball rolling with a sublime long-range point after 90 seconds, ruthlessly finishing off the goal opportunity created for him by Aaron Gillane and covering acres of ground.
His clubmate Conor Boylan, a rangy 20-year-old wing-forward and graduate of the 2017 All-Ireland U-21 winning team, impressed hugely, not least when beating Eoin Murphy with a fierce drive less than a minute after Dowling had done the same.
Another member of that 2017 team, Robbie Hanley, was the most influential figure in midfield, while best of all was a man-of-the-match performance from Tom Condon, a fringe player last year but yesterday an inspirational corner-back whose monster point exemplified Limerick's burgeoning confidence.
There's no obvious decline in the established Limerick stars either, and one of them appears ready to become one of the game's very best forwards. Aaron Gillane has been garnering plenty of notice for his scoring exploits in the Fitzgibbon Cup and yesterday he exhilaratingly displayed the full range of his talents.
There was an electrifying run and solo point in the first half, a superb score under pressure from the right sideline two minutes into the second, a beautiful crossfield ball which only a great save from Murphy prevented from creating a second Dowling goal and even an outrageous volley over his shoulder from an acute angle that also called the keeper into action.
Gillane's chutzpah illustrated how much Limerick enjoy being All-Ireland champions. Some teams talk of the pressure which comes with it and the feeling that you're there to be shot at. The current title holders don't seem to feel this way.
The most striking thing was how much hungrier they were than Kilkenny, even though the home team is the one currently starved of honours. Limerick's superior appetite was evident all the way through to the last seconds, when four of their men hounded a solitary Cat as though everything was still up for grabs.
Jackie Tyrrell will ship some stick for declaring that Limerick aren't in hurling's top three and have no hope of retaining their title. But he only said out loud what had been whispered and implied elsewhere during the winter.
The begrudgery makes no sense. Limerick won the greatest championship ever played, beating Tipperary, Kilkenny, Cork and Galway en route. It was the least soft All-Ireland ever won. But perhaps it's the perpetual fate of counties from outside the big three to endure such carping. Cyril Farrell and Ger Loughnane used it to motivate their teams to further triumphs. John Kiely may well be doing likewise.
Right now Limerick are by some distance hurling's outstanding team. That may raise concerns about peaking too soon but you'd much prefer to be in Kiely's position than in that occupied by any other manager.
He's certainly in a much better place than Brian Cody. Kilkenny already look a busted flush for 2019, last year's league title a false dawn in a narrative of precipitous decline. Even with the return of TJ Reid they won't have enough quality to challenge for the All-Ireland. They're lucky to be in Leinster because they wouldn't make the top three in Munster.
This defeat was Kilkenny's heaviest in Nowlan Park since August 24, 1997 when they lost a league semi-final to Limerick by ten points. The supporters booed manager Nickey Brennan off the pitch that day and he resigned soon afterwards. A year later Brian Cody took over. Now it feels like another era is slowly drawing to a close.
It's not Cody's fault. The stuff just isn't there for him anymore. Kilkenny and Leinster have been left miles behind because of a terrific Munster U-21 championship whose intensely competitive nature has made it ideal for the development of outstanding young talent.
It's 2008 since either Kilkenny or Leinster have won an All-Ireland U-21 title. Limerick's current stars cut their teeth winning the 2015 and 2017 crowns. That they had the desire to come back and win a second one augurs well for their ambitions.
The grace and dignity with which Limerick behaved following their All-Ireland win won plenty of praise. But maybe there was a little bit of condescension there too. When we talk about the great Kilkenny or Cork or Tipperary teams what they did on the field always comes first.
Can Limerick be great in the same way? It's looking good so far.