Saturday 21 April 2018

Limerick will never fear a blue and gold jersey

The intensity of the border rivalry can never be boiled down to mere numbers

Limerick's Graeme Mulcahy gets away from Michael Cahill of Tipperary in their Munster GAA SHC semi-final last year. Photo: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
Limerick's Graeme Mulcahy gets away from Michael Cahill of Tipperary in their Munster GAA SHC semi-final last year. Photo: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

On the Tuesday after Limerick's All-Ireland semi-final loss to Clare last year, team captain Donal O'Grady drove to the home place of young Declan Hannon.

He'd heard the teenager had been left "destroyed" by a poor individual performance in Croke Park and wanted to be sure that perspective wasn't completely rinsed away in the natural wash of grief. Hannon is one of the most gifted young hurlers in Ireland but, against Clare, his confidence slipped through the floorboards.

O'Grady recalls in Damian Lawlor's wonderful new book, 'Fields of Fire – The Inside Story of Hurling's Great Renaissance', that Hannon had been due to attend a trial for the Super 11 hurling exhibition to be staged at Notre Dame University in October, but chose not to go "because he couldn't face other inter-county players".

Hannon's was just one of a number of house calls O'Grady made in the immediate aftermath of that loss to Clare, sensing a need to remind his men that their breakthrough year should not be irrationally tainted by the nature of its conclusion.

Ten months on, Limerick return to the championship arena tomorrow in Thurles and – judging from player interviews this week – they do so feeling disregarded and, by extension, largely disrespected. Despite being defending Munster champions, it is their opponents, Tipperary, who carry an odds-on price (4/5) for victory into battle.

You might put this down to the loss of a joint-manager in yet another of those troubled winters that seem a Limerick reflex. Or you could put it down to just one more underwhelming league campaign that left them rooted in Division 1B.

But it's far more likely that price is informed by the prejudice of history.

In championship, Tipp have won three out of every five meetings with Limerick and you have to go back to the mid-90s to identify the last time Limerick won this fixture in successive seasons. More graphically, Tipp have won 40 senior Munster titles to Limerick's 19.

In the mind's eye then, they don't quite meet as equals.

But Limerick have a way of getting under Tipperary's skin. 'Babs' Keating always professed wariness of them, a fear he carried from the '60s when maybe the greatest Tipp team of all scrambled to a fortuitous replay in '62 and was then snared by a rampant Eamonn Cregan in '66.

Limerick even had a pivotal role to play in ending Keating's second spell as Tipp manager, emerging successful from that remarkable trilogy of games in '07.

Some rivalries are more nuanced than simple arithmetic can articulate, and Tipp-Limerick is one of them. Think of Limerick coming back from 14 points down in '81 to force a replay they'd win comfortably. Think of them winning the '92 league final, despite trailing 0-11 to 0-3 at the mid-point. Think of the Munster final in '96, Tipp playing exhibition stuff to lead 1-11 to 0-4 at half-way.

What happened? Limerick hauled them in, then won the replay.

Those comebacks were franked above all by a refusal to bend the knee to a blue and gold jersey that, for so many, always seemed to radiate superiority and arrogance.

It is said that Joe McKenna instigated that extraordinary comeback of '81, closing the dressing-room door just as they were about to resume in Thurles and raging against his team-mates' apparent deference with a level of animation that was rare from the big full-forward.

"Get the ball in to me and I will score goals," he reputedly told them. True to his word, he famously delivered three.

In '96, the rebellious voice was Ciaran Carey's. Joe Quaid recalls in Henry Martin's 'Unlimited Heartbreak' how Carey's half-time anger cut through any appetite for analysis of what was developing into a Gaelic Grounds slaughter.

"We can either f**k off home or we go straight back out!" roared Carey. Limerick didn't go home.

Nicky English's inter-county career ended with replay defeat in Cork that year. He'd grown up on the Tipp-Limerick border, understanding implicitly the wild energies that flew between the counties as hurling rivals.

When I worked with Nicky that year on his autobiography, 'Beyond the Tunnel', he suggested that hurlers from mid-Tipp or north Tipp didn't quite comprehend the shadow that Limerick could cast in a west Tipp mind.

He recalled a speech made to the Tipp team by county chairman, Mick Maguire, prior to the Tipp-Limerick game of '91.

South Africa was still regarded as a sporting pariah at the time, excluded from that year's rugby World Cup because of its apartheid policies. But Maguire, who came from the same parish as English, told the Tipp players that evening: "Look, if Tipperary were playing South Africa tomorrow, Limerick would be shouting for South Africa!" And, for English, that "struck the perfect chord".

Tipp-Limerick, then, is no easy, straight-line narrative. Indeed, for Eamon O'Shea now, the broad presumption of the betting markets cannot possibly encourage easy sleep. Two years ago, Limerick blew a seven-point lead against Tipp in Thurles. Last year, they won by four on the Ennis Road.

They return to Semple Stadium now as provincial champions, palpably needled and edgy and armed with a forward line that, on its day, could punch holes in an army Saracen. Among its number, of course, is one young Declan Hannon.

"We have to mind these lads," says Donal O'Grady in 'Fields of Fire'.

Tomorrow, we will know if they succeeded.


Liverpool's £4m capture of Lambert looks a sharp investment

Liverpool's apparent £4m capture of Southampton striker Rickie Lambert could ultimately prove to be one of the sharpest investments of what promises to be a frenzied summer transfer window.

A native Liverpudlian and supporter of the Anfield club, Lambert is Premier-League hardened, a current England international and an innately clever finisher who will offer authentic support to Liverpool's front-line attacking force without, presumably, resenting the status of being a back-up.

Given that Brendan Rodgers has a reputed £60m to spend and as Liverpool's most pressing need for surgery is – clearly – at the back, this looks like a wise investment.

Irish Independent

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