Allen key to unlocking Limerick's will to win
Treaty County have brought a new intensity and professionalism to their preparations for this campaign, says Damian Lawlor
CLEM SMITH has followed Limerick hurling closely for three decades. Today, Smith will fall back into old ways by allowing himself to dream again. Although his old team is trying to beat Cork in a Munster final, not the easiest of tasks, he senses something different about the current breed.
Smith runs two well-known premises in the city, having just taken over the old Trinity Rooms, and has seen at first-hand the exuberance that greeted the county's underage success over the years. The problem was that the county's structures were weak so there was a failure to progress at senior level.
"A lot of that was over-the-top; this thing about Limerick hurlers having no discipline, or drinking too much," Smith says. "The supporters and lads themselves enjoyed themselves after winning under 21 All-Irelands and all that, but I have seen plenty of other hurlers from different counties come here, drink twice as much with not a word about it.
"The problem with the Limerick boys is that we have always been too easy to gossip about. It's a city where everyone knows what's going on and people just add their own bit."
Seamus Hickey is just one player who has had to endure stories of a great social life. Yet Hickey doesn't even drink. He's not the only one on the current team either.
"I'll tell you one thing," Smith adds. "There is just nothing to worry about with the current set-up. Not only do you hardly see them around town, but when you do they are drinking water and these days they wouldn't even have sparkling water. They are down-to-earth lads; a right good bunch."
They look to be sufficiently uncontaminated by the past, and by the extraordinary hype in the build-up to today's final. They have been met with requests for photo-shoots, endorsed pictures with garages and other companies, while clothing shops have asked them to wear their threads. And, of course, there has been a hunt for tickets for the 44,000 sell-out. But all requests have been directed towards management, and barring official Limerick GAA business or the odd charity request, appeals have been turned down.
"I think this is the best sporting county in Ireland," says half-back Paudie O'Brien. "We just get behind every sport – hurling, soccer, football, rugby, boxing, we are only eager to get behind everyone. But as players we're lucky to be able to step aside from that; we are very focused [on today]. This is a great occasion for everyone but you could lose the run of yourselves because we haven't played in a Munster senior final before and that's just not going to happen; we're well focused on what we have to do."
O'Brien is the epitome of how John Allen has moulded the team. "This game is a lot more physical now," O'Brien says. "So physically you have to be in way better shape. Hurlers are bigger, faster and stronger and they do a lot more gym work, plus there's a lot more sports science involved. It's the future. The emphasis is also on diet; no one is watching over us but being careful about what you eat is vital. The pace of the modern game is incredible; the battles for aerial catches and primary possession are unreal, so every inch counts."
That intense off-the-field preparation is counting. Against Tipperary, they made 33 hooks and blocks in 72 minutes and half of those were made by their forwards. They scored five points as a direct result of turnovers and outscored Tipperary by 0-9 to 0-2 in the last 20 minutes. In fact, the six Tipp forwards who finished that game only had eight significant touches of the sliotar in that closing period. The efforts of their skills coach, Donach O'Donnell, and fitness coach, Mark Lyons, a sports science lecturer at UL, is clearly paying off. Meanwhile, O'Brien is dabbling in mixed martial arts in his spare time. It's little wonder the team is looking so physically powerful.
Both Lyons and O'Donnell will testify that John Allen just lets them at it – there is no interference in their approach to training. Allen is a quiet figure but you underestimate him at your peril. He's letting them at it because things are being done right. Without much fuss, Allen has developed a formidable set-up; on his watch – and in the season before when Donal O'Grady was in charge – Limerick have been building slowly.
The players say their gradual progression is partly down to the increased responsibility Allen gives them – as well as the coaches.
"He gives ownership back to the team," O'Brien (pictured right) says. "John tells us that we're the ones on the field and we make decisions on the day. He is a very good man-manager; very good to get you into the proper mindset and instil belief. For the Tipp match last year, we had ourselves believing that we were going to win – even if no one else thought we would. That was down to John."
They almost did too, only Tipperary came back from the dead to win and for 12 months Limerick used that turnaround as motivation. By the time Tipperary arrived at the Gaelic Grounds a few weeks ago, you could see the hunger in the whites of their eyes as they beat the Tipp forwards to every aerial tussle in a blazing finish. Tipp, undeservedly, almost snatched it again, but the heartbreak of a year ago ultimately saw the home side through.
"In the back of my mind I was saying 'feck this – it's not going to happen again'," said Declan Hannon. "There have been too many sad stories in Limerick and especially after losing the under 21 game to Tipp a few weeks back which was a disaster. That could have set us back a long way but this team has great character and the defence were absolutely awesome."
Clem Smith says this is down to the belief their manager has instilled. He hails Allen's appointment as "an inspired one".
"For years, we were in the papers every week and for all the wrong reasons," he says. "There were rows with managers, the players' strike, tugs of war over dual players, the younger and more senior lads were supposed to be at odds and we were all supposedly out socialising too much. A lot of it was overblown because we are Limerick, but John Allen, and I don't know the man, just seems to be getting on with the job. He has everyone united and there's not a loose word out of the camp. He has a bunch of fellas who do all they are asked and while I would always fear Cork in a Munster final, we go into the final with a huge degree of hope because of his work."
Whether the team can remain oblivious to the incessant public demands to end the 17-year provincial title famine remains to be seen. In the semi-final there was a total lack of aggression from Tipp and while Cork are no hulks themselves, they will tackle more aggressively, like they did against Clare. They'll also come out to burn Limerick by playing at a ferocious speed and looking to split the Limerick defence with fast ball and deft touches.
The Munster hurling championship may be weaving its magic again in terms of drama and excitement, but it remains to be seen how Limerick cope with the 'big day' syndrome.
"Ah no, this is a massive boost for Limerick," Smith says. "People constantly talk about rugby here but 70 per cent of Munster rugby fans are GAA people. So, if anything, the hype is even bigger with the Limerick hurlers. The county has been crying out for a title but I think the lads are just focused on what they have to do."
The first task they've negotiated is ignoring public perception of their limits as a Division 1B team. The truth is that many experts who dismissed them on that basis wouldn't even have bothered to watch those second-tier games. Had they listened to the media, they would not have even turned up for the Tipp game.
"Look, not to win the 1B final was disappointing," O'Brien agrees. "It had been my first goal for 2013 and we didn't do it; it was especially sore losing to Dublin like we did because we had enough chances to win two or three times over. But we're still in Division 1B, as are Cork, and here are the two of us are in a Munster final.
"The good thing about 1B is it probably helped that we didn't have to face Tipp in the league, so we came in under the radar. There was not one bit of talk about us for the whole winter; if you ever opened a paper there was no one talking about us. But we went off and put a lot of work in.
"We knew Tipp would have their purple patch but this time we were ready; the lads [game-changers like Niall Moran, Shane Dowling and Kevin Downes] came off the bench and pushed us over the line. It was an unreal day; the weather itself; the crowd came alive; everything that happened that day was like a weight off our shoulders. But it was only a Munster semi-final. It was nice to win and beat your rivals . . . but it was only a semi. Yes, we put everything into beating Tipp but that game will be worth nothing for us today. We're well focused on what we have to do."
All the evidence would appear to back him up.