Open air laboratory used to find way to beat Limerick
The days of pretending the hurling league matters are long gone. A manager may throw in the occasional line that it is the second most important competition on the calendar, but really he is just trying to bore his inquisitors into submission.
The league is a kind of open air laboratory only marginally more important than the pre-season tournaments, even if people are still coming to watch it.
Seven of the counties in Division 1 are free to experiment knowing there are no consequences once they avoid a series of embarrassing thrashings.
For Antrim, Laois and Westmeath, however, it’s a battle to avoid the dreaded relegation final. This season Antrim are home free with one round left. But this minor drama will not save the competition.
For Limerick, Galway, Clare, Kilkenny, Cork, Tipperary, Waterford and Dublin the campaign has been all about preparing for the All-Ireland series which begins in six weeks. Rest assured the All-Ireland winners will come from this group.
No manager will lose a wink’s sleep over not winning the league. Waterford’s collapse in the Munster championship last season after earning rave reviews for winning the Dr Croke Cup was a sobering reminder that in hurling what happens in April doesn’t count. Come July, few will remember who won the league and even fewer will care.
The downgrading of the league is primarily due to the physical and mental demands of the round robin format of the provincial championships. The split season has exacerbated the issue. Yet again the law of unintended consequences has come back to bite the GAA.
Last Saturday night’s spikey Tipperary and Waterford clash at Semple Stadium was an outlier. Both sides were hell bent on making a statement. It was the first time Liam Cahill faced the team he was in charge of for three years. So it was important for the home team not to take a step back.
The Cusack Park tie between Clare and Galway 24 hours later was more typical of the competition. It failed to engage fans but was very informative for the management teams. It looked like both sides were experimenting with a game plan which they might deploy against Limerick in the championship. This is now the primary function of the league.
The middle third of the field resembled Grafton Street on Christmas Eve. Both sides dispensed with sweepers and for the most part were content to shoot from long range.
Galway did score a goal through Conor Whelan and Éanna Murphy made an excellent save from David Reidy. But overall there was a dearth of goalmouth thrills, so there wasn’t much for the crowd to get excited about.
Having lost two on the spin on home soil, Galway’s need to win was greater than Clare’s who will probably still qualify for the last four. The visitors ultimately won but nobody got even mildly excited.
Everything is geared towards preparations for the Liam MacCarthy Cup. Counties with realistic ambitions of winning it will almost certainly have to solve the riddle of how to overcome John Kiely’s side when it matters.
Limerick actually failed to beat Clare in normal time in their three encounters in 2021. The league tie and the round robin Munster clash finished level, as did the Munster final, with Limerick edging the contest in extra time.
Over the three matches, Clare recorded more scores (71-70) but the goals by Kyle Hayes in the round robin fixture and Gearóid Hegarty in the Munster final were key.
Twice Galway have come close to dumping Limerick out of the All-Ireland series. In the 2020 Covid-19 impacted winter championship, Limerick didn’t secure the result until injury time in the semi-final.
Under Henry Shefflin, Galway again attempted to outpoint Limerick in last year’s semi-final. They denied Limerick a goal and scored one themselves, but woeful shooting (19 wides) meant they came up short by three points for the second year running.
Brian Lohan and Shefflin might be on to something. Galway in particular have players who, although unlikely to out-muscle Limerick, can match them in terms of physique. So engaging the champions in a war of attrition in the middle third is a feasible option.
In theory it denies Limerick room to engage in their triangular passing movements before freeing their designated shooter to hit points from long range. But Limerick haven’t won four of the last five All-Ireland titles by sticking to the same format.
Last season they weren’t afraid to hit their full-forward line more often and it yielded a rich dividend due to the outstanding form of Aaron Gillane, who is now back in the squad.
What has set Limerick apart is that they continue to set new records in terms of their scoring tallies. Compared to Kilkenny’s 2006-2009 four-in-row winning team, Limerick have averaged 28.91 points per game while the Cats registered 27.88 points per game.
Limerick scored three goals in the 2020 Munster semi-final against Tipperary, but didn’t score a goal in any of their other four championship matches. This created a myth that they are not a prolific goal-scoring team in the All-Ireland series.
Again the statistics suggest otherwise. In their four successful campaigns they have hit 33 goals in 24 games (1.37 per game) which is decent compared to Kilkenny’s 32 goals in 18 games (1.77 per game) between 2006 and 2009, given the Cats’ reputation as a goal-scoring machine.
What will encourage teams chasing Limerick is that they were not as dominant in 2022 as they were in the previous season. They only had two points to spare over Kilkenny in last July’s decider.
Time will tell whether they peaked when they demolished Cork in the 2021 All-Ireland final as Kilkenny did with their 23-point annihilation of Waterford in the 2008 final.
Kilkenny hung on to win again in 2009, but after finally running out of road in 2010 against Tipperary, they came back to win four of the next five Liam MacCarthy Cups. Limerick have a distance to go before matching that.
In the meantime, the rest of the league will only provide straws in the wind as to how teams might go about solving the Limerick puzzle in the months ahead.
2006 Championship: Total scores 5-110 (5 games); Average score per game 25pts
2007 Championship: Total scores 8-115 (5 games); Average score per game 28.8pts
2008 Championship: Total scores 11-98 (4 games); Average score per game 32.6pts
2009 Championship: Total scores 8-83 (4 games); Average score per games 26.7pts
Overall: Total score 32-406 (502); Games 18; Average score per game 27.88pts
2018 Championship: Total scores 14-162 (8 games); Average score per game 25.5pts
2020 Championship: Total scores 3-141 (5 games); Average score per game 30pts
2021 Championship: Total scores 8-108 (4 games); Average score per game 33pts
2022 Championship: Total scores 8-184 (7 games); Average score per game 29.7pts
Overall: Total score 33-595 (694); Games 24; Average score per game 28.91