John Mullane: This is the best crop of Limerick players I've ever seen - and they are ready to win an All-Ireland
I've never seen a Treaty squad as good as the current crop assembled by John Kiely. Tomorrow, they'll have no fear as they prepare to enter the Cusack Park cauldron and face down Clare. This is a team capable of winning not just Munster, but the All-Ireland title
The rise of Limerick is one of the summer's big stories and the exploits of the Shannonsiders have made hurling fans sit up and take notice.
The question now is whether the Treaty men can end the county's 45-year wait for the Liam MacCarthy Cup.
The answer is an emphatic yes.
Should we be surprised by this Limerick resurgence? Not when you consider the county's recent success at U-21 level, but fans will be cautious because Limerick won three in a row from 2000-2002 and senior success didn't follow.
But looking at this group, there's a different feel about them.
It's a special group and after watching them grow through this Munster round-robin campaign, they look to be in fine fettle ahead of tomorrow's crunch visit to Cusack Park in Ennis.
For me, this is the best squad of players from Limerick that I've seen in all of my years watching hurling.
The teams of the mid-1990s had some better individuals but as a collective, this current Limerick unit is impressive.
Paul Kinnerk and Joe O'Connor are two key members of their back-room team, and were involved with Clare's All-Ireland-winning team of 2013.
When you consider this, it's evident that Limerick have everything in place to push on and reach the Promised Land.
You can sense it in their play and how physically developed they are now.
They've come on in spades and are second only to Galway in the battle of the brawn.
I like how they play too - it's a mix of the modern game and the traditional route-one Limerick approach.
Kinnerk is central to this approach and Limerick are comfortable going long or short.
Limerick also have a settled side and I flagged this ahead of their meeting with Tipperary in round 1, and how I fancied them to win the game because they had that foundation right from 1-9.
Take a look at the two Munster teams out of the championship now.
Tipp didn't have a settled defence and Waterford had injuries to contend with.
It's crucial that goalkeeper to midfield is a settled unit and with the exception of Mike Casey coming in at number 3 for Seamus Hickey, Limerick have had that continuity.
They have a good full-back line who have pace, while their half-backs are strong, athletic and all able to hurl.
I've been seriously impressed with the transformation of Diarmaid Byrnes in the last 12-18 months.
Previously, there was a perception that Byrnes would nearly play for himself rather than the team but now he's fully behind the collective and the process.
Gone are the risky shots from long range and the improvement in Byrnes has made a huge difference to the player and, consequently, the Limerick team.
Byrnes didn't start in last year's fixture against Clare in the championship but there's been a huge transformation in the team since that defeat.
Another pivotal move for Limerick has been the positioning of Cian Lynch at midfield.
This is a fella who was tried in various positions and you'd often scratch your head and wonder where he was actually playing.
At times, he was in that deep-lying number 11 role and operating around midfield but there were other occasions where he was named at corner-forward but drifting out to play as a third midfielder. When this didn't work out, however, Limerick didn't function either.
Now, John Kiely and his management team have done the right thing by pitching Lynch alongside Darragh O'Donovan, another energetic player, at midfield.
Lynch now has the freedom to just go and play, beat his man and win that area.
The movement of the Limerick forwards is another crucial feature of their play.
They have men who can win aerial ball and a bench to call upon now.
With Declan Hannon out, Kiely could bring in a steady replacement in William O'Donoghue.
With Aaron Gillane out suspended last week against Waterford, Shane Dowling came in realising that he needed a huge performance to keep his place.
Gillane's punishment for his red card against Cork was that ban but he now has a bigger battle on his hands - and that's getting back in the team.
Limerick's bench was key in their last two matches and the men that come in are full of energy, hard workers and honest.
That strong work ethic and honesty are traits that Kiely has instilled in this Limerick team.
And when you don't see players like Kevin Downes and Peter Casey in a 26-man matchday panel, that gives you an indication of Limerick's strength in depth. Kiely's building something special and the two pillars of work ethic and honesty are central to everything.
Tomorrow, Limerick go into what's considered a lion's den and a fortress for Clare.
But many of these Limerick players have good memories of Cusack Park and the Munster U-21 hurling final played there in 2015 is still fresh in the mind.
Limerick won by three points and it was a victory that stopped Clare as they chased four in a row.
What's also intriguing is that both of the current senior management teams were on the line that night.
Match-ups will be key tomorrow as the counties renew rivalries.
Last Sunday when Clare's No 11 Tony Kelly went deep in the first half, no Tipp player was prepared to follow him, until Joe O'Dwyer was detailed to do the job.
I don't expect Declan Hannon to follow Kelly and it will be interesting to note who's tailing Kelly when he's on the move.
Limerick must also prepare for Clare's in-form John Conlon, and I'd expect Richie English to pick him up, with that aerial presence and height advantage better suited ahead of Mike Casey, who'll likely switch to the corner.
There are so many sub-plots to consider and another is Peter Duggan and if he can shoot the lights out again.
His ability to hit dead balls is hugely beneficial to Clare and Limerick will be conscious of not conceding frees within scoring range.
The movement of those Limerick forwards will trouble Clare but with Tony Kelly dropping deep, we can expect a congested middle third.
This is where the game will be won and lost and goalkeeper Nickie Quaid is another massive plus for Limerick.
In the modern game, your goalkeeper is not just required to be a good shot-stopper, he should also play with the mindset of an outfield player.
Do Clare start Podge Collins and Séadna Morey after the massive impact they made against Tipperary last Sunday?
I'd start them both, such was the eagerness and hunger they brought to the table.
Factoring everything in, this is some way to end the Munster round-robin series.
Cusack Park will have the pressure-cooker atmosphere, with everything on the line as the teams look for a Munster final slot.
They were closely matched in the league, Limerick winning an historic free-taking shootout to reach the semi-finals, and you couldn't rule out another draw.
But I'm not sitting on the fence with this one. I like what I'm seeing from Limerick and they're my tip to win and reach the Munster final.
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