Uphill battle for limerick
IT'S at times like this you wonder just how much damage Limerick's lost season in 2010 really inflicted. Lots of strong green shoots have sprouted in the county over recent years with college, club and county U-21 successes, but how much further forward would the senior scene be if 2010 was an ordinary year when all the top players were available?
Every season informs a county about itself, provided, of course, that's it's fielding the best available team. You learn which players are improving, retaining form, losing their way and which emerging talent is ready for the big step-up. It's part of the ever-evolving process which happens in all sports, but which Limerick missed out on in 2010.
Not even Kilkenny or Tipperary could afford that, although they would have been better equipped to deal with it than Limerick, who headed into that year with the massive defeat by Tipperary in the previous year's All-Ireland semi-final still a painful presence in the memory.
Donal O'Grady did a great job in stabilising Limerick last year and now John Allen is trying to take it a stage further, but there's no way of ignoring the fact that they are at a much different stage of development to Tipperary.
In the circumstances, a good result for Limerick tomorrow would be to remain competitive all through, learn from the experience and head confidently into the qualifiers where the early rounds would line them up against weaker armies than Tipp.
In terms of winning, expectations are fairly low in Limerick for tomorrow's game, which is understandable, but supporters will be looking for positive signs that the squad is ready to drive on through the qualifiers. Naturally, there's some apprehension about going into such a major championship test with a new-look central defensive pairing.
Richie McCarthy switches from attack to full-back, while Donal O'Grady drops back from midfield to No 6, moves which come with some degree of risk, though not as much as some might think. McCarthy will be up against Brian O'Meara, whom he knows well from colleges hurling, while O'Grady is a seasoned campaigner who has plenty of centre-back experience at club level.
Seamus Hickey's absence weakens the Limerick defence, while Declan Hannon will be missed in their attack. In the longer term, I would see Hannon as a real option at centre-back.
Limerick supporters were disappointed with their second-half performance against Clare in the Division 2 League final, but I wouldn't put as much store in the result as Limerick missed a few goal chances in the first-half.
Tipperary are in a classic bind tomorrow. If they win big, it will be put down to Limerick weakness; if they win narrowly, they will be criticised for not putting down a clear marker, and if they lose they will have to find bunkers under Semple Stadium.
All of which they must ignore and simply get on with playing their own game to the best of their ability and see where it takes them. There's an interesting shape to their line-up but, essentially, it's still being driven by proven performers in every line. Significantly, the Tipp bench looks very strong.
Of course, it now includes Lar Corbett, although I doubt if he will be used unless things are going Tipperary's way quite easily.
It's essential for Limerick to get a foothold on proceedings early on because if they allow Tipperary to open a sizeable lead in the first 20 minutes there will be no way back.
What's more, it could get worse as the day wears on, leaving Limerick with a serious hangover to take into the qualifiers.
I'd expect Limerick to have enough resolve, structure and skill to reach a level where they push Tipperary out of their comfort zone.
After that, though, Tipp will do enough to win, but not by a margin that seriously damages Limerick's prospects of enjoying a good run in the qualifiers.