Monday 19 March 2018

Jamesie O'Connor: Unleash hell and Limerick have hope of toppling Tipp

Tipperary probably have enough, but Limerick should make life very uncomfortable for them

‘I expect Cian Lynch to have a big game for Limerick, and the Tipperary supporters to have a considerably less comfortable afternoon than they might expect’ Photo: Sportsfile
‘I expect Cian Lynch to have a big game for Limerick, and the Tipperary supporters to have a considerably less comfortable afternoon than they might expect’ Photo: Sportsfile

Jamesie O'Connor

On February 13 last, I walked out of the Gaelic Grounds having watched Limerick demolish Wexford on the opening night of the National League. Never mind that Wexford were abject, Limerick were the story. Everything about the performance - their touch, their striking, the physical dominance they exerted - pointed to a side heading in the right direction. And no surprise with Joe O'Connor on board, they looked in tremendous physical condition. I left certain Clare were going to have their work cut out in the winner-take-all meeting in round five which would determine who would secure promotion.

It drew my mind back to a radio interview David Breen gave a couple of weeks after last July's tame qualifier defeat to Dublin. When asked why Limerick's year had petered out after such a promising start, he referenced their continued failure to get out of Division 1B, and how the lack of really competitive games against tier-one opposition was hampering the team's development.

To progress, promotion had to be a priority, and it was time to deliver on something the Limerick players had been talking about doing for the previous four or five years.

Once again, though, Limerick came up short of that objective. Admittedly, things didn't go their way; Barry Nash's first-half sending-off left them with a huge mountain to climb, especially after John Conlon's controversial early goal. But having picked themselves up to avenge last year's defeat to Dublin in the quarter-final, they were no match for Waterford a fortnight later. That performance was baffling. Trying to play a short passing style, and beat Waterford at their own game, simply didn't make sense. Yet, bereft of any other ideas, that's exactly the way Limerick wound up trying to play. When Waterford went up a gear in the second half, they had no response, no leadership on the field.

How much damage those twin defeats have done to morale remains to be seen, but somewhere along the way, the wheels fell off. Back in March, there were so many positive things happening in Limerick hurling that one had to be hopeful about what the summer might hold. The three Limerick colleges all made the Fitzgibbon weekend, with Mary I defeating UL in a final that was backboned by Limerick players; Na Piarsaigh were crowned All-Ireland club champions, and a number of last September's All-Ireland under 21-winning side looked ready to make the step up to senior level. What was there not to be optimistic about?

In terms of trying to pin down what went wrong, Limerick just looked like a team that had lost their way; lost their identity. They didn't seem to know how they were supposed to play, or what exactly they were trying to do.

The solution is simple. Limerick more than anything else, just need to find a way to be Limerick. What does that mean? For me, it's intensity, aggression, hard, direct, physical hurling. Players putting their bodies on the line. The type of play that not only gets a vocal Limerick crowd behind them, but makes them genuinely hard to play against.

I'm well aware that in the modern era of tactics, systems and game plans, this may be oversimplifying it. Obviously, they have to be tactically aware and manage the game as it unfolds. But those characteristics have to be their starting point. Without them, especially in the heat of the Munster Championship, they're at nothing. On the other hand, fired up, and ready to unleash hell on the opposition - something Tipperary have been on the receiving end of plenty of times in the recent past - they're a very different proposition. Then they become a side no-one relishes playing. Any success they had, and any of the Munster titles they won, were on the back of ferocious intensity and togetherness. Rediscover that, and they have a genuine chance.

Talking to people at the South Liberties golf classic last Friday week, there has by all accounts also been a degree of turmoil within the camp. But that's nothing new, and is often there when Limerick are at their most dangerous. That's the time the players and management have to stick together, circle the wagons. Everyone in the Limerick camp has too much invested for it to fall apart on the one day that was etched in everyone's calendar since last November. And Limerick have shown an ability to get it right for the Munster Championship.

Are they good enough to take Tipperary down? Tipp saw them off far more comfortably than most people would have imagined 12 months ago in the Gaelic Grounds. The concession of early goals meant they were playing catch-up from the off and that took the Limerick crowd out of it. Limerick, though, will have learned from that and TJ Ryan had the opportunity to take a good look at Tipp against Cork three weeks ago.

As impressive as aspects of that performance were, the caveat is just how poor Cork were. Dan McCormack, Sean Curran and Michael Breen did supply plenty of endeavour in the middle third, but for me the jury still remains out on just how good some of the new faces introduced really are. John McGrath has undoubted class, and is the real deal up front. But Tipperary will need to get more out of Bubbles O'Dwyer and Noel McGrath than they did the last day, especially with Limerick likely to be hell bent on somehow stopping Seamus Callanan.

Provided the Tipp defence plays as well as they did against Cork, they should have enough at the other end to get the job done. But I expect Cian Lynch to have a big game for Limerick, and the Tipperary supporters to have a considerably less comfortable afternoon than they might expect.

In the Leinster semi-final, the fact that Galway had 17 points to spare over a Westmeath team that beat Offaly by 14 in the first game of the round robin, illustrates the chasm Eamonn Kelly's side have to close. The harsh lesson Galway very nearly learned three years ago, when Laois almost turned them over, has framed their attitude in these matches ever since. Watching Kilkenny put Dublin to the sword last Saturday night will have concentrated their minds even further.

The return of both Conor Cooney and Niall Burke helps mitigate the loss of Jonathan Glynn from the half-forward line, and overall it's still a pretty potent-looking unit. They were clinical against Westmeath, 3-22 from play, and they simply have too much pace and firepower up front to be contained today.

In fairness to Offaly, three wins on the bounce, none of which could have been taken for granted, gives them momentum, and a degree of confidence that they can at least be competitive. Unfortunately, while this fixture would have been fraught with danger for Galway up to a few years ago, that's no longer the case, and anything less than a double-digit margin would be a surprise.

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