Back where it matters most
Limerick's defensive linchpin is relishing another chance on hurling's big stages, writes Damian Lawlor
RICHIE BENNIS is only half joking when he tells the story of how Brian Geary cost him the Limerick job. Bennis takes you back to the 2006 championship, when Limerick were in the midst of yet another crisis, this time following the resignation of Joe McKenna after a hammering by Clare in the qualifiers.
He was brought in to quench a few fires with his genuine, old-fashioned ways. Through a renewed focus, different tactics and trust in the players, he dragged them off the ropes; they shimmied past Offaly and Dublin before they were beaten in a split call against Cork in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
A year on and they were back in an All-Ireland final and while Kilkenny dished out a cruel lesson, Bennis was confident a proper team was emerging, one that could bloom further in the 2008 championship.
Then it all began to unravel. A few weeks after that humiliation by Kilkenny, Geary, one of the manager's chief lieutenants, severed his cruciate ligament playing football for Monaleen.
Although he bent steel recovering for the following summer, Bennis didn't deem him sharp enough for the Munster championship opener against Clare. Without his stout defensive qualities, Limerick were carved wide open as Clare whipped in four goals in a slaughter. Weeks later, Bennis's defence was again infiltrated, this time by Offaly in the qualifiers. It wasn't long before the county board sent the grim reaper out to Patrickswell.
"It might sound simplistic but Brian cost me my job," Bennis says. "In all seriousness, if he was fully fit in 2008 we would have beaten Clare in Ennis, I'm absolutely sure of that. We would have gone in with a different mindset because he was our leader, always steady in defence. Without him, we leaked goals.
"In hindsight, though, Brian also did me a real favour," he adds, earnestly. "We lost to Clare because Geary wasn't right and therefore the team wasn't right. Then I was let go by the county board and with a little time to myself, I went off to get a health check.
"Had I still been Limerick manager, I definitely would not have had that check-up because you'd be so bloody consumed with the job you would just have put it off. But I went for a screening and the doctors discovered a problem which thankfully has been since addressed. If I didn't deal with it then I mightn't be here talking with you, so maybe it's thanking Brian I should be."
When the story is relayed back to Geary, he lets out a hearty chuckle. "Jesus, Richie has an angle for everything," he laughs. "All I can say is that you'd do anything for him and it's just a pity we didn't deliver an All-Ireland for him."
Geary is probably one of the few Limerick players who could look most of their managers over the past decade in the eye without fear of self-reproach.
Eamonn Cregan, Dave Keane, Pad Joe Whelan, Joe McKenna, Bennis and Justin McCarthy all tried their hand at the job, to varying degrees of success, and Donal O'Grady is currently steering the ship in the right direction.
But apart from McKenna's tenure, which saw Geary replaced after 25 minutes against both Clare and Offaly in 2006, he has been a rock at the heart of their defence, playing 1,220 out of 1,450 minutes of championship hurling since then. The three games he missed were down to that cruciate injury and the 2010 players' stand-off with Justin McCarthy.
He describes his early substitutions under McKenna as the low point in his career, but doesn't go beyond himself for blame. Even when he looks back on another downcast time, the 2010 write-off, he is reluctant to put the boot into McCarthy's tenure.
"Justin meant well," he says. "But things got a little stale. Then the whole affair got deeper than we imagined. I'll be honest; the strike was way worse than the injury -- you couldn't control a knee injury but during that row with Justin you'd only be waiting around to go back playing hurling, hoping things would be sorted.
"Once April arrived, though, we realised we wouldn't be up to the pace of it anyway and lads didn't want to be going back taking the place of someone else. I won't tell you a lie, my head was melted with the whole thing. Throw in the injury and it was a bleak few years. You just wanted one chance to get back and test yourself again."
The story shouldn't have taken such an ugly twist; from 2000 to 2002 Limerick won three consecutive All-Ireland under 21 championships and the future hummed with promise, but somehow they entered the 2007 campaign without one senior Munster championship win.
When he looks back, Bennis feels the garlands were thrown at those young lads much too soon.
"Way too much was made of those under 21s," he reckons. "In my book, anyone good enough for senior would have already have been on the panel at that stage. It's the minor team I would be more persuaded by; getting them up to speed is the key."
Geary, though, shone like a beacon amidst those graduates and played senior championship for Cregan (in 1999 against Cork) before he even togged out with the 21s. He did so well on debut day that he was moved from corner to centre-back as the game unfolded.
A year later, Limerick ruled Munster in both under 21 codes and he was able to sit in the senior dressing room with two All-Ireland medals in his back pocket. His football career looked equally promising; he landed a Munster under 21 medal in 2000 and only lost the All-Ireland final to a burgeoning Tyrone. Throw in a Fitzgibbon Cup title and the player of the tournament award for UL in 2001 and even the most cautious of hurling soothsayers would have heralded Limerick's dominance over the next five years.
For one reason or another, however, whether the youngsters didn't blend with the senior players or whether their discipline was questionable, there was a failure to launch. Maybe they just weren't good enough? Whatever the reason, Geary is sick of talking about it.
"There always seemed to be something, a new manager or some other issue. We were on top of the tree, winning in football too. I thought not much would change but it did and we are where we are. I never take anything for granted anymore.
"But really, I just think Limerick needed to go on a run somewhere in between, like we did in 2007. We still need to do that. We've lost so many championship games by a point or two and it drains the life out of players."
And at 31, following his setbacks, there were doubts whether he would ever again achieve harmony with inter-county hurling. Pace wouldn't have been his calling card and with mobile teams like Tipperary upping the tempo all the time, he could have accepted his lot and devoted more time to his wife Teresa and their young son Cathal.
When O'Grady was appointed manager everyone knew he would bring a running, short-passing game with him and uncover hungry young talent to implement his system. Geary would face a challenge reaching that tempo.
"No, I would have thought the opposite," Bennis insists. "Anyone who thought Brian would suffer doesn't know hurling. He's been one of our most intelligent players these past 10 years -- he'd love that sort of challenge.
"Sure, he wouldn't have blistering pace and wouldn't have the speed for full-back either but I guarantee you O'Grady had him down for number six from day one. And Geary responded to that -- I went to Thurles for the Waterford match and looked twice for him, he was so fit. Imagine the work he put in to get to that stage."
Sometimes, Geary met physio Barry Heffernan twice a day to ensure his recovery ran smoothly. While others who missed out on 2010, like Seamus Hickey, wanted to resume their promising careers, this guy's ambitions were more urgent.
"I know a lot of people would criticise me and say I'm not fast enough for number six but I don't mind that -- it's all part and parcel of hurling," he says. "Personally, I just always felt that if I got myself back fit, I was confident of getting that number six shirt again.
"When things were low I was looking for a day like this, an All-Ireland quarter-final at Thurles. But at the start of the year it wasn't like that -- I just wanted one more game in a Limerick shirt to see if I could still do it. When you see the young lads coming in, we have loads, including Kevin Downes and Declan Hannon, you wonder can you still do a job. All it is now is going from game to game. It's the younger lads who will drive Limerick on these next few years."
The comeback wasn't easy, nor was hyping himself up for Division Two of the league. Treks to Down and Westmeath were far removed from his upbringing at hurling's top table, but to impress O'Grady he had to stamp his mark on those second-tier skirmishes.
"I found it hard going," he admits. "Those games were far from a cakewalk; they were tough and physical. There was no such thing as a sure thing even if they were a gear or two below top-tier standard. We've obviously had to go up a few levels since the spring but it's working out. In the past few years, Limerick people haven't been used to the business end of the season so it's great we're back in a quarter-final."
O'Grady has supervised their steady march to the closing phases of the championship and it's been intriguing to see Limerick adjust to the short passing game with decent dividends, even if the long ball to Downes at full-forward often looks a more viable option.
"Well, I wouldn't call ours a short passing game as such," Geary interjects. "If the long ball is on, it's on. Donal likes to mix it up and knows what he's doing. The day I stop learning and listening to All-Ireland medal winners is the day I give it up. He's been a good, solid appointment for Limerick hurling. Those who appointed him spent a bit of time on this and it was a good move."
He acknowledges the strides today's opponents Dublin have made and reckons it's Limerick's biggest test, even if very few will be surprised if the Shannonsiders reach the last four. After last season's malaise, that would be some turnaround.
"Dublin are probably further along the line than we are. They were flying it in the league and probably have more weights done and stuff. But none of our young lads will be standing back -- they'll go toe to toe."
He'll most likely face Ryan O'Dwyer as the centre-forward returns from suspension. O'Dwyer likes to move around; can sweep in front of the defence, make driving runs and notch the odd score. Geary knows his hands will be full.
"Centre-back play hasn't really changed much, but the movement of centre-forward has so I have to be ready," he says. "In the Leinster final, Brian Hogan never budged from the centre, but if his man scored 0-3 he would have followed him out. The days of a number 11 staying there for the whole game, picking puck-outs from the sky are over.
"But we'll go into the game with confidence. We had chances to put Waterford away in Munster but when you see how Tipperary hammered them maybe we were better off going through the back door. We got an unmerciful beating against Tipp a few years ago -- what good would another one in a Munster final have done? We should have beaten Waterford but now we have to test ourselves against Dublin to see what level we're really at."
Both teams will be hopeful of reaching an All-Ireland semi-final so the stakes are high. "That's what I wanted when I was two or three years waiting for a championship game," he interrupts. "This is what you train for."
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