Saturday 21 April 2018

John Mullane: Limerick shouldn't fear heat of the Nowlan Park cauldron

Limerick will need leaders like Graeme Mulcahy to be on the front foot in Nowlan Park if they are to push Kilkenny to the limit as they did in the All-Ireland semi-final of 2014. Photo: Sportsfile
Limerick will need leaders like Graeme Mulcahy to be on the front foot in Nowlan Park if they are to push Kilkenny to the limit as they did in the All-Ireland semi-final of 2014. Photo: Sportsfile

John Mullane

Wexford's famous victory over Kilkenny will provide Limerick with hope they can also skin the Cats - but John Kiely and his men could have done with a home draw.

If you're a Limerick player waking up this morning, getting ready to board the team bus to Kilkenny, you'll still cling to that Wexford result.

You can't be consumed by thoughts of entering the Nowlan Park bear-pit against Invincibles, because Kilkenny's aura of invincibility is fast becoming a thing of the past.

What Kiely and his backroom team must drill into the head of these Limerick players is that if they were travelling to Wexford Park today, they'd be going there expecting to win.

So why not believe that you can go to fortress Nowlan Park and get a result? The venue doesn't hold the fear that it once did, as Wexford and Waterford both went there this year and won in the League.

Kilkenny are vulnerable and doubts have crept in that had not previously been evident.

But they'd have taken this draw and the longer they stay in the championship, the more dangerous they'll become.

Sean Finn is a player who's been a big plus for Limerick this year.

He's already shown that he's made of the right stuff by battling back from a cruciate knee ligament injury and in his last two matches - against the Clare seniors and Tipperary U-21s - he's shown that he can push on and become a Limerick great.

He reminds me of a young Damien Reale or Tom Condon, a typical Limerick corner back who's dogged, in your face, tight and tenacious.

I played against Reale and Condon and those lads wouldn't give you an inch.

And if Limerick are to have any chance of beating Kilkenny, Finn could prove crucial.

In Kilkenny's defeat to Wexford, Davy Fitzgerald asked James Breen to man-mark TJ Reid.

Maybe John Kiely will deploy Finn on Reid, as I'm sure the Limerick manager will designate man-markers for specific Kilkenny players.

Struggle

What we've seen in Kilkenny's last two competitive outings - both against Wexford - is that they struggle if TJ doesn't gain a foothold in general play.

We keep hearing about how TJ and Richie Hogan have to perform but you just feel it's the others around them that have to step up to the mark now.

TJ and Richie are coming to the end of their inter-county careers and Richie spoke during the week about how he's been struggling badly with that back injury.

There's so much mileage on the clock but, at this stage, they should be enjoying their golden years rather than feeling as if they have to carry the hopes of a county on their shoulders.

If you take those two Wexford games in isolation, they've managed just two points between them from play, both in the League quarter-final defeat, when they scored one apiece. And maybe this pressure to deliver is weighing them down a bit now.

I certainly felt it towards the end of my Waterford career.

In the earlier years, I knew that if I had an off-day, there were others around me that would chip in.

After all, we had a forward line that also contained Paul Flynn, Dan Shanahan, Eoin Kelly and Seamus Prendergast.

You could play below-par but two or three of the other lads would pick up the slack.

When TJ and Richie were younger, they could enjoy themselves more.

There was a time when TJ couldn't even get in the team, with the likes of Martin Comerford, Eddie Brennan, Eoin Larkin and Richie Power ahead of him in the pecking order.

Henry Shefflin was there too but that pool of talent is just not there anymore, and I can sense that TJ and Richie are suffering because of that.

Michael Fennelly's 32 but he's still a huge miss for Kilkenny when he's not available. You only have to look at the Wexford game the last day, and the 2016 All-Ireland final, for evidence of that.

Limerick will feel they have a chance but I'm not sure the blend is quite right yet.

Watching their U-21s against Tipp last week, they reminded me of Waterford's U-21 crop last year.

There's a number of them involved with the senior set-up and, physically, they were far too strong for a young Tipp team.

The strength and conditioning work overseen by Joe O'Connor with the seniors is standing to those U-21s but the question is, can they bring it to senior level?

As we've seen with Limerick in the past, most notably when they won those three All-Ireland U-21 titles from 2000-2002, they can struggle with the transition.

And we're still waiting for the U-21s from the Munster winning team of 2011 to show the leadership required at senior level on a consistent basis.

The mix between youth, guys in their mid-20s and the elder statesmen is not perfect but will come to bear fruit.

Exciting

It was on the money in 2013 and 2014, when Limerick had the older lads like Donal O'Grady, Wayne McNamara, David Breen and Tom Condon alongside some exciting new players.

What Limerick need in the Nowlan Park cauldron this evening are men to lead their charges into the trenches.

And if Graeme Mulcahy, Declan Hannon, Shane Dowling, Seamus Hickey and James Ryan are up for a fight, they have a chance of pulling off what, to many, seems almost unthinkable.

Sometimes, when we don't expect much of Limerick, they can come and perform against the odds.

The return of Diarmaid Byrnes is a major plus and while William O'Donoghue and Gearoid Hegarty are considered doubts, Tom Morrissey and Barry Nash put their hands up for starting places with big U-21 displays last week.

The Limerick senior's Achilles heel is in attack but, curiously, it's where their U-21's are strongest.

Good times lie in store for the Shannonsiders but it might take two years for the jigsaw pieces to slot into place.

The Kilkenny test has come too soon for them, and Cody's men will live to fight another day.

Irish Independent

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