I N Limerick, some colour has returned to a pale hurling complexion. It might be too early to hail a glorious ascension, a Munster championship win, or even promotion from Division 2, but the simple hope of better things to come is perfectly valid and reasonable. They have named a team to play Clare in Ennis they feel they can trust and call their own. They haven't been able to say that in a while.
Maybe the exhaustive run of calamity and astonishing trail of self-destruction that characterised Limerick hurling for the last ten years has finally dried up. Maybe it needed the apocalyptic events of 2010 to give Limerick the kind of ultimatum they could no longer ignore. There is peace and unity and that may lead to prosperity. Without peace and unity they were at nothing.
In this more stable environment, they have added the services of a first-rate manager and a shrewd body of selectors passionately devoted to the Limerick cause. There are other tangible gains, but more than anything else there is a renewed sense of duty and hunger to hurl and rediscover the old magic. Hurling, not politics or personality, is the central prerogative.
Many of those who boycotted last June's Munster championship semi-final against Cork will be more stimulated by the prospect of a shot at a promising Clare team in Cusack Park. Limerick didn't take part in the Munster Cup, instead playing recent challenge matches against Wexford, Dublin and Offaly, so today's game may come a little too soon. But what better test than a match with their old rivals in their own backyard?
The difference between now and this time last year could not be more pronounced. Limerick started training under Donal O'Grady and Jerry Wallis on January 2. Many of the discarded players are back hurling. With their captain Gavin O'Mahony injured today and Brian Geary not back to full fitness, they are trying out a few new players and some positional experiments. Expectations are greater than when staring forlornly down the barrel of last year's league campaign but they are not going to be a burden at the same time. If they are building a house, as one of the selectors put it, this is the part where they are pouring the foundation.
Nevertheless, O'Grady's appointment is a major boost to the county's confidence. "I think he is the type of fella you need in Limerick," says Eamonn Cregan, "someone to kick ass. I would have dropped eight of the 12 fellas that Justin (McCarthy) dropped. I'd have done it differently, but there are fellas on the Limerick panel who were happy to be on the Limerick panel; now that is not acceptable. Every one of those guys should be willing to fight, but they were just happy to be there and get the gear. But I wish them the best of luck on Sunday."
O'Grady is well qualified to handle a post-conflict environment like Limerick's. In 2002, he took over the Cork hurlers at a time when their form had collapsed and morale was on the floor. O'Grady impressively stabilised their condition and then began to draw on their eagerness to atone for a lost year and make amends. Unlucky not to win an All-Ireland at his first attempt, he completed the task a year later. He brings authority and coherence to a county which has lacked a steady guiding hand.
"Donal has a very good reputation and a very good record," Cregan notes. "And the one thing he is, is very, very positive and therefore if these guys can't learn from him then we are going nowhere. There are some players on that panel who will listen to nobody."
It is hoped that other developments will prove beneficial. Limerick's last Munster minor title was, almost scandalously, in 1984, and their under 21 All-Ireland treble already belongs to a different decade. But there are clear signs of improvement in the performances of their minor and under 21 teams and they are producing some exciting players.
Last year the minors almost defeated Clare, who won the Munster championship, and were unlucky not to defeat Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final. Ardscoil Rís are seeking to retain the Harty Cup and have showcased Declan Hannon. The Adare hurler is one of the county's most talked about prospects and still a Leaving Cert student. Kevin Downes, part of the Ardscoil Rís team last year, is another bright talent and has been named in today's team.
Limerick's development squad system underwent an overhaul four years ago and the fruits of that are beginning to show. Cregan is exited about the county's prospects and now feels they have a more streamlined system that is producing hurlers of a higher technical ability and a better policed attitude and mentality.
"Kevin Downes is getting a baptism of fire today," says Cregan. "He is a lovely hurler, beautiful stick player, and given proper ball he could be a success. Declan Hannon is the same as Shocks (Andrew O'Shaughnessy) was some years ago -- they are writing him up as the future Limerick centre-back. Premature. He is a very good hurler but he is very, very young and I hope he doesn't go the way that many of our promising players went before. This guy has tremendous potential, but he needs to learn. Let's not have Limerick depend on an 18-year-old."
He is optimistic that they have the foundation right. "Limerick are coming . . . they are on the way back and it has started at underage level, it has been in place for four years, and they are bringing players through who are looked after properly. We were on the frigging ground, we were under the ground. It started at (Tony) Forristal (level) and worked up from there. We decided we needed players to play at high intensity. They need to play in college teams contesting Harty Cup. You must be playing top level all the time."
Players like Damien Reale, Seamus Hickey, Stephen Lucey, Donal O'Grady and Niall Moran are back, having missed out during last year's dispute. Mike Fitzgerald is also on the mend after injury and busily rehabilitating a career that dipped since his string of fine performances in 2007 helped Limerick reach an All-Ireland final. The pieces are beginning to fall back into place.
A determined move to set up a hurling board has also raised hopes of a brighter future. Representatives of the four county board divisions met informally last year out of concern for where Limerick hurling was headed.
That produced a motion to county convention calling for a hurling board to be established which received the necessary two-thirds majority for approval. "They got together because they were pissed off with what was happening in Limerick the last two years," says Cregan bluntly. "What worries me about the hurling board is this: the idea is great. I think we need to concentrate on hurling as well as football, but, Jesus, it needs young people."
The 1973 All-Ireland winner Phil Bennis was part of the group that met and campaigned successfully for a new hurling board -- a football equivalent has been in existence for some years. Bennis admits he was too "ashamed" to attend their championship match against Cork last year but he is more upbeat now. Limerick has been poisoned by petty politics for a long time and the hurling board was far from a foregone conclusion when first raised. A widespread canvass of clubs was conducted and on the day of the vote a number of speakers spoke strongly and persuasively in favour of the motion.
Before the convention, a letter from the county board to clubs warning of the implications of a further layer of bureaucracy being created, and casting doubt over the motives was circulated. This caused uproar but merely steeled reformists who eventually won the day. Bennis says that all political strands are now pulling in the one direction, citing the support voiced by the county chairman after the vote results on convention day.
"The only reason we put that work in is because we love hurling," states Bennis. "A football board was set up here and Limerick were very unlucky not to win a couple of Munster titles, so this has to improve hurling. You have to set out your style of hurling from under 13 up. So that when they turn senior they don't have to start a different brand of hurling. They play the same brand from the word go. In Patrickswell, we had a brand that no one else played in Limerick. I am not saying that is the brand we should play. But there should be a continuation from the day you catch a hurley.
"If you look at Waterford, if they played a Cork type of hurling or a Tipp or Kilkenny type they would have won All-Irelands. They drove balls from 80 yards wide. In Patrickswell we used to make sure we could catch as many balls as we could and lay it out if in trouble and also have fellas running off the ball. We had a plan. We'd never let a man hit a ball from 80 yards out, but make sure he put it in to someone else. You would get twice as many scores."
They are nowhere near out of the woods yet. Clare are the front-runners for promotion and Limerick may find themselves facing their rivals in the Division 2 final later this year if they can negotiate some tricky assignments along the way; their final regulation game is in Casement Park. They face Munster champions Waterford in the summer. Tom Ryan, the outspoken former manager, talks of lost "market share" to rugby and how last year people weren't talking about hurling because things had reached such a low ebb. They had lost all interest. In the city of Limerick the decrease in senior hurling clubs is a reflection of the game's struggle to win the hearts of the new generation. The county final between regional side Emmets and Kilmallock, featuring hurlers from a broad constituency, drew a modest crowd of around 1,500. "You'd see more at the killing of a pig," says Ryan.
"It's trial and error for Donal O'Grady, because he doesn't know all his players, but he will quickly find out who is up to the standard," states Eamonn Cregan. "But it is 1,000 times better than what it was last year. Last year was a disaster, the feeling went, nobody wanted to go to matches and there was a lack of leadership all round. Now, this is a new era and a new start and we go forward from here."
Sunday Indo Sport