THEY'RE being billed not so much as Hamlet without the prince as without its entire first-choice cast, yet beleaguered Limerick hurling manager Justin McCarthy and his team of understudies produced a far from tragic 'first act' yesterday.
A gutsy display that yielded two goals in a four-point loss to reigning Fitzgibbon Cup champions UCC was a very respectable start to the competitive season for McCarthy's team of second-choice players, even if the students looked pretty experimental themselves as they shuffled their pack in preparation for their third-level colleges' title defence.
Limerick had only one starter -- Paudie McNamara -- from last year's panel but, to continue the Shakespearean analogy, the sizeable crowd of a couple of hundred that came to Kilmallock yesterday for this Waterford Crystal quarter-final appeared to come to praise McCarthy, not to bury him.
The Treaty county supporters got behind their rookie team, especially lifting their voices when local boy Graeme Mulcahy goaled after 25 minutes to give them a momentary lead.
McCarthy may have been accused of bad communication by his exiled players, but he personally shepherded players on and off the pitch yesterday like a concerned mother hen and, significantly, was clapped off the pitch afterwards by some supporters.
Even at the best of times McCarthy is not a man given to the soliloquy, so it was no surprise that he kept it short and sweet and would not comment on the controversy that has seen 24 of last year's panel outlining last week why they are refusing to play for him.
"I am not discussing that," McCarthy said when asked if he was still keeping the door open for those players who have controversially exiled themselves, though selector John Tuohy stressed afterwards that dialogue is continuing with them.
McCarthy preferred to concentrate on those he has at his disposal who, to be fair, gave him and the county jersey everything they could yesterday.
"I'd be very encouraged, I thought they were all very committed and I thought that the best man that UCC had was Brian Sullivan (of Kilmallock, in midfield), who will be back with us," McCarthy said.
Selector Tuohy, already established in the role of peacemaker in this latest inter-county hurling drama, was more expansive.
"That was a great performance," Tuohy said. "We are very happy with it, very happy with their commitment, very happy with the way they are showing in training and the door is open and everybody is welcome. We will see what happens in the future."
UCC started with just two established inter-county players -- Waterford's Richie Foley, who was excellent at full-back, and Cork's Tadhg Og Murphy. But they, noticeably, had rising stars like Conor O'Sullivan (Cork) and Darach Honan (Clare) in their first 15 and were also well served by Cork sub-keeper Anthony Nash, Tipperary U-21 Shane Burke, Thurles Sarsfield's Michael Cahill and top scorer Stephen Moylan (Douglas).
Despite their relative inexperience, Limerick's new boys stuck hard to their task and a few names caught the eye.
Not for the first time Patrickswell's Tommy O'Brien looked sharp and his namesake Tommy O'Brien from Bruree was also lively in the half-forwards.
Kileedy's Cathal Mullane, while sometimes guilty of over-carrying, was directly involved in both of Limerick's goals.
When they were called off the bench Ballybrown's Alan Brown and Brian Quinn also both did well.
At full-back Des Kenny was unflinching and Limerick certainly crossed the ball intelligently from the wings, even if they struggled in midfield.
But it is fair to say that while it was competitive throughout this game on still-soft ground, it was neither pacey nor tidy and making the step up to the inter-county standard, starting with Galway in a month's time, is going to be a huge leap for a Limerick squad which, currently, only retains six of last year's panel.
UCC pulled four points clear in the first quarter when Nash had to be alert to a good run from the Patrickswell O'Brien and the free-taking of himself and McNamara had cut the deficit to two when Mulcahy goaled after a great one-two with Mullane.
But the students bounced back with four unanswered points before the break to lead by 0-11 to 1-5 at half-time.
Nash had to be alert to parry a low Mullane shot half-way through the second period when UCC had pulled six points clear and Limerick's second goal came when Mullane jinked through and laid off for O'Connor to finish.
As they battled to narrow the gap, Limerick were guilty of three bad wides in the dying stages allowing Burke and Moylan to close it out comfortably for UCC.
The Cork students will now play UL, the road ahead looks paved with far greater challenges and pitfalls for the gutsy Limerick new boys.
Scorers -- UCC: S Moylan 0-9 (0-5f), S Burke 0-4, M Cahill 0-3, P Barry, T Og Murphy, B O'Sullivan 0-1 ('65) 0-1 each. Limerick: G Mulcahy, A O'Connor 1-0 each, P McNamara (0-2f), T O'Brien (Patrickswell) (0-3f) 0-3 each, T O'Brien (Bruree), C Mullane and, R McKeogh 0-1 each.
UCC -- A Nash; C O'Sullivan, R Foley, C O'Driscoll; S Corry, K Hartnett, A Quilligan; M Cahill, B O'Sullivan; P Barry, R White, T Og Murphy; S Burke, D Honan, S Moylan. Subs: E Murphy for Honan (52).
Limerick -- B Hennessy; D Lynch, D Kenny, K O'Rourke; L O'Dwyer, D Madden, A Brennan; D Moore, T Fleming; T O'Brien (Patrickswell), T O'Brien (Bruree), C Mullane; G Mulcahy, P McNamara, R McKeogh. Subs: A O'Connor for Moore (31), P Harty for Fleming (35), M Ryan for McKeogh (46), B Quinn for Madden (46).
Ref -- M Wadding (Waterford).