Treaty revived once more as hope rises
After some dark days and some wrong turns over the last few years there is now cautious optimism in Limerick, writes KEITH DUGGAN
FEW TEAMS in any sport have been asked to look in the mirror as often as the hurlers of Limerick. Tomorrow’s All-Ireland quarter-final against Kilkenny offers the latest opportunity for self-examination. The Treaty men have been maligned, pitied and castigated during an eventful decade that has brought about an All-Ireland final appearance but no silverware.
It is easy to trace Limerick’s talent for unexpected drama and new adventures in heartbreak back to those traumatic last five minutes of the 1994 All-Ireland final against Offaly. Allowing for the laconic chutzpah of the Offaly men, the knowledge it should have been Limerick’s All-Ireland title still haunts several generations of hurlers and that late collapse has magnified subsequent disappointments.
The soaring expectations created by the under-21 teams who reeled in three consecutive All-Ireland titles were never fulfilled and the revolving door for the series of managers who passed through the dressingroom enhanced the sense of chaos and panic. The stalemate between the players and management during Justin McCarthy’s fraught reign was simply saddening to behold and created divisions that could easily have turned rancorous. It would have been said that Limerick hurling had slipped back by a decade . . . if it had somewhere to slip from.
That is why the Treaty fans who head along to this novel All-Ireland quarter-final will do so in a strange frame of mind. Yes, they are outsiders and in their heart of hearts accept their All-Ireland championship season will probably end in Thurles. But the panel is settled and working ferociously for John Allen, who has managed to turn a tumultuous opening few months around.
Not so long ago, there would have been a fear of a merciless drubbing at the hands of Kilkenny. And that might yet happen: if Kilkenny hit that mood of greedy brilliance, goals and points come rushing like coins from a one-armed bandit. But still: there is growing belief in this Limerick team. That has been hard earned.
“It is not my heart ruling my head but I genuinely think Limerick will put it up to Kilkenny,” says Richie Bennis.
“The one reservation is watching Kerry and Tyrone in the football, it is set up in a similar way – Kerry being written off and came out guns blazing. So if Kilkenny come out like the Kilkenny of old and we have a good game, they will beat us. But if they have a bit off an off day and we hit form, I give us a chance.”
Bennis was manager when Limerick confounded the public by beating Waterford, to qualify for that All-Ireland final five years ago. It is memorable chiefly for Kilkenny’s thunderous opening 10-minute spell.
“After the first nine minutes of that match, we outscored Kilkenny by four points,” Bennis points out.
In retrospect, that final marked the beginning of a period when all other counties began to despair of ever beating the Cats in a championship game.
But Bennis believes the internal pressure on the Limerick players probably also contributed to their downfall that afternoon.