Limerick hurlers bare teeth to point graph upwards
Damien Quigley has seen something in a Limerick hurling team this spring that he wouldn't normally identify with teams past.
They haven't just won the games they should be winning, they have won them with more than a bit of conviction - 10 points to spare against Laois, 17 against Offaly, 12 against Dublin, 17 against Antrim - doing what a team with ambition should be doing when the opportunity presents itself.
"We wouldn't be a county known for putting teams to the sword too often. We'd huff and puff a bit. But we've been quite clinical in the league so far and that wouldn't be in our psyche historically," said Quigley.
Limerick's long battle to liberate themselves from Division 1B ended a few weeks ago in Salthill when that clinical element that Quigley - corner-forward on the Limerick team that lost to Offaly in the 1994 All-Ireland final and a central figure on selection committees to choose some of Limerick's most recent hurling managers - talks about, manifested in the second half when they overturned an eight-point interval deficit against All-Ireland champions Galway.
In each of the six previous campaigns that they strove to lift themselves into the top six, they ultimately found a way to trip themselves up in a game or two. However, topping Division 1B now, and advancing to a league semi-final for a third successive year, gives them clarity.
Quigley detects a sense of pragmatism about the team.
"There's no one jumping around. There's an air of realism around which is great for a county that can get carried away with itself with the craving for success there is," he said.
"I think people understand that the standard is very high. Tipperary and Galway looked to be out on their own ahead of the rest, just a point between them in their last three Championship meetings but this is progress.
"To get up to 1A and then go toe-to-toe with a 1A team (Clare) and beat them in a quarter-final, albeit in an odd way, has us heading in the right direction.
"The graph is going in the right direction."
With up to 10 players from his own club, Na Piarsaigh, missing throughout the league - they won't be back for tomorrow night's league semi-final against Tipperary in Semple Stadium - they've had to dig deep into their resources.
At the forefront of their advance has been Aaron Gillane, who only made his league debut against Laois in January but who has amassed an impressive 6-50 in his six games to date.
Gillane's marksmanship over placed balls (0-41) and penalties (two) has compensated for the loss of the club-tied Ronan Lynch and Shane Dowling but anyone present in the Gaelic Grounds on the evening of their quarter-final against Clare would recognise what a special talent he is with the manner of his second goal, a delicate back-handed stroke.
For his part, Limerick manager John Kiely admits that when they played Galway in the corresponding league semi-final last year, they weren't ready for it.
"It was a new team just a few months together, we were a new management team. In fairness, Galway beat Tipperary by even more in the final and won the Leinster title quite convincingly," he said.
Through the winter and spring Kiely has got just the response he wanted from his group.
"They've let nothing get in their way. They've been committed and focused. Even through the third-level competitions, 18 of our 33-man squad was involved in Fitzgibbon Cup, but we just got on with it," he said.
In coming back from eight and nine points down against both Galway and Clare, he knows he is developing a team with character.
Kiely has appealed for patience and caution in the past, most notably on the night of their comprehensive 2015 All-Ireland U-21 triumph over Wexford when he was manager. But expectation is something he has long learned to tune out of it.
"It's not something I hear or listen to. We've just concentrated on working hard to get better physically and mentally for the challenges ahead," he said.
Quigley feels there were real signs of that physical improvement in Galway.
"A year ago I would have said it was men against boys in the Gaelic Grounds for that semi-final," explained Quigley. "But in Salthill we were a lot better prepared for it. Maybe Galway are a bit behind where they need to be but they were still a team that wanted to win."