Tuesday 21 August 2018

John Kiely's improving Limerick ready for the fast lane

Limerick 0-27 Kilkenny 1-22

Kilkenny’s TJ Reid rises above the Limerick trio of Sean (2) Finn, Dan Morrissey (7) and Diarmaid Byrnes during the All-Ireland SHC quarter-final at Semple Stadium Photo: Sportsfile
Kilkenny’s TJ Reid rises above the Limerick trio of Sean (2) Finn, Dan Morrissey (7) and Diarmaid Byrnes during the All-Ireland SHC quarter-final at Semple Stadium Photo: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Green and white decorated the Semple Stadium pitch a long time after this enthralling contest had finished yesterday, but then the wearers of the Treaty County colours had something special to savour.

To put into context on how long Limerick had waited to beat Kilkenny in the Championship, the last time they achieved it Brian Cody was a 19-year-old wing-back in his first season as a senior player.

Referee James McGrath ducks as Aaron Gillane of Limerick fires in a shot. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Referee James McGrath ducks as Aaron Gillane of Limerick fires in a shot. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

That was back in 1973, which also happens to be the last time Limerick won the All-Ireland title, an ambition that is now gathering powerful momentum in a season where, with the exception of the misfire against Clare in the final round of the Munster 'round robin', progress has been solid and sometimes spectacular.

That certainly applied to their more productive periods yesterday, topped by the closing nine minutes when they out-scored Kilkenny by 0-5 to 0-1. That was hugely significant in terms of charting Limerick's rising maturity levels.

This was a test they would probably have failed in the past, especially against a county so well-versed in how to win.

When Richie Hogan gave Kilkenny a two-point lead with a well-constructed goal in the 64th minute, the balance of power appeared to have switched their way at a crucial time.

Cian Lynch is swamped by Limerick supporters after the game Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Cian Lynch is swamped by Limerick supporters after the game Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Masters in the art of closing out tight games, Kilkenny were well-placed to book a semi-final clash with Cork, but Limerick refused to be weighed down by history's heavy hand.

Granted, luck ran their way when referee James McGrath ignored what looked like a clear foul on John Donnelly and, from a Limerick breakaway, Peter Casey scored a point.

Effectively it was a two-point turnaround, a massive swing in a game of the finest margins. Casey, who came on just before the hour mark, made quite an impression, as did Kilkenny sub Richie Leahy, who scored four points. Hogan, back in the starting line-up after a long absence due to a back injury, also contributed greatly to the Kilkenny cause, scoring 1-3 from open play and drawing defenders towards him in various other facets of play.

However, the absence of Walter Walsh, ruled out with a groin injury sustained against Galway a week earlier, was a major setback for Kilkenny, whose Route 1 options were limited as a result.

John Kiely calling the shots for Limerick Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
John Kiely calling the shots for Limerick Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Colin Fennelly had some good moments at full-forward, but Walsh's height and power were badly missed against a Limerick defence that grew in confidence as the game progressed.

They had a shaky enough start when Kilkenny opened up a four-point lead in the first quarter, but the landscape changed dramatically for the rest of the half.

Limerick settled into a much more efficient routine, varying their play cleverly, not just in terms of a long and short game, but also switching the angles of attack.

The latter caused Kilkenny all sorts of problems, with Limerick corner-forwards Graeme Mulcahy and Aaron Gillane making considerable progress.

Indeed, were it not the excellence of Kilkenny goalkeeper Eoin Murphy Limerick's interval lead (0-15 to 0-12) would have been much higher.

He turned a booted effort from Gillane over the bar in the 12th minute, intercepted an attempted pass from Seamus Flanagan on 25 minutes and deflected another goal-bound drive from Gearoid Hegarty over the bar in the 30th minute.

He was alert, too, in the second-half, especially when it came to coming off his line.

In contrast, his opposite number Nickie Quaid had a much quieter day, which was testament to the solidity of defence, once they settled in.

Kilkenny made more progress further out, but then Limerick did well in the middle third too, picking off some wonderful long-range points.

Only three of their 27 points came from placed balls (two frees and a line ball), with all six starting forwards, two half-backs and a midfielder scoring in the first-half alone.

Limerick opened a four-point lead in the third quarter, but Kilkenny's trademark stubborness kicked in, enabling them to cut the deficit to a single point after 53 minutes.

For a team having their third game in 15 days, there was certainly no sign of fatigue on what was the coolest Sunday afternoon for several weeks.

Rain fell for much of the game, making underfoot conditions slippery but, in fairness, both sides coped well.

Ultimately, it all came down to how well Limerick reacted after Hogan's goal. They retained both their composure and structure, which was crucial against opposition who need only the tiniest opening to exploit weaknesses.

It looked as if this would be another example of their survival powers steering them home, but, for a second successive week, the opposition finished stronger.

And there may be more to come from Limerick, whose confidence will be boosted enormously by this success.

A win over Kilkenny still carries extra bonus points and with Limerick showing that they have a very strong panel, as opposed to just a starting 15, they will be more than hopeful about reaching the All-Ireland final for the first time since 2007 when they face Cork on the weekend after next.

They drew with the Rebels in Páirc Uí Chaoimh in Munster 'round robin', having been a man down for much of the way after Aaron Gillane was sent off in the first-half, so they will have banked lots of confidence from the experience.

As for Kilkenny, a year of transition has ended with more positives than negatives. They won the Allianz League title and while they lost to Galway (twice) and Limerick in the Championship, the overall shape and balance of the squad looks good.

Wins for two Munster teams in the quarter-finals over the weekend means that Leinster won't be represented in the semi-finals, except by their guests from the west, who are casting a very long shadow across the eastern landscape.

They have already won the Leinster senior and U-21 titles, while the minors booked a place in the All-Ireland semi-final when easily beating Kilkenny yesterday.

Galway still remain strong favourites to retain the Liam MacCarthy Cup, but defeats for Wexford and Kilkenny this weekend will raise question marks over the standard in the Leinster campaign.

That will greatly encourage Cork, Clare and Limerick, all of whom are improving steadily and who will reckon there's more to come in Croke Park.

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