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‘We were hurt by that but we didn’t panic’ . . . how Kiely and his team for the ages produced their best when it mattered most

TEAM OF THE YEAR: Limerick hurlers

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Declan Hannon with the Irish Independent Team of the Year award. Photo: Mark Condren

Declan Hannon with the Irish Independent Team of the Year award. Photo: Mark Condren

Declan Hannon with the Irish Independent Team of the Year award. Photo: Mark Condren

WHEN best to deliver the consummate performance? In the ultimate match of the year, of course. Easy said. Far less easily done.

Limerick hurlers delivered just that on August 22. The pithy post-match words of Kieran Kingston sum up how that onslaught felt. “It was like trying to stop the tide with a bucket,” the Cork manager admitted.

But how was it for his opposite number? “We had a fantastic 2021 and, when it mattered most, the team produced their performance,” says John Kiely, looking back at a five-month remove. “That’s great satisfaction to everybody involved – that we got our timing right, we got our performance up to a very high level.”

The suspicion that Kiely has built something special had already hardened in the wake of their shock-and-awe second-half comeback against Tipperary (in the Munster final) and their methodical dismantling of Waterford (at the semi-final stage).

And then came that first half against Cork. Has there been a more pitch-perfect 35 minutes of hurling?

No surprise, then, that Limerick have won a public vote to be named Irish Independent Team of the Year.

This was a year when Tyrone defied the oddsmakers and Covid’s pernicious grip to win back Sam; when Meath completed the most remarkable rags-to-riches achievement in ladies football history; when Ireland’s rugby heroes lit up the dark nights of November by ousting the All Blacks.

Yet despite all that, Limerick’s All-Ireland display – and what had preceded it – brooked no argument.

Myriad pundits drew parallels between Kilkenny’s 2008 peak (routing Waterford by 23 points) and Limerick’s tour de force (flooring Cork by 16). Yet, to this observer, the latter was more compelling – partly because at least Cork threatened to make a contest of it to begin with. Very soon they found out: resistance is futile.

Here was the day physicality, athleticism and supreme game intelligence melded with a fizzing accuracy of distribution and execution to create a perfect storm. Every pass had a message. And whereas frugal wide counts have rarely been a Limerick staple, even those misses were trimmed (to just four) before the break.

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The stats don’t lie: by half-time Limerick had tallied 3-18, sufficient to win 109 of the 139 All-Ireland SHC finals previously contested. Just one runner-up has ever eclipsed this over a full game - Kilkenny’s 5-14 in 1971, and even that was in an 80-minute final.

By the final bell, their score had risen to 3-32 – an all-time final record. They had won their four SHC matches – all against fellow Munster heavyweights – by a cumulative 40 points, or ten points on average.

And when the All-Stars team was announced and Limerick had won 12, shattering the previous county benchmark of nine, the intriguing part is that strong cases could have been made for the three Shannonside starters who failed to make the cut.

Looking back on the campaign, Kiely describes that second half against Tipp as vital. “We didn’t defend very well in the first half, some very soft goals and that wouldn’t be in our make-up. A lot of that first half would have been very much ‘anti’ what we strive to do, we were disappointed with that, we were hurt by that. But we didn’t panic.”

And the rest is history.

This year they’ll be chasing three in a row. But for sleepwalking out of the semi-final blocks against Kilkenny in 2019, they might conceivably be fine-tuning their own ‘Drive for Five’.

Kiely is enthused by thoughts of what some “exciting young players” might bring to the table. “For every coach, that’s why we’re in it. We love to see new talent coming through – and lads that are there already getting better. That’s the thrill of being involved with any team, be it an under-six or under-eight team in the club or maybe an inter-county team.”

Or even a team for the ages.

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