One of the most impressive traits of Limerick’s recalibration of its hurling destiny has been a relentless pursuit of improvement since their emergence five years ago.
In some ways, it began against Galway.
The day when they ousted then All-Ireland champions in the league in Salthill was the first time their star was observed high in the sky. They had been blown out by 10 points by the same opposition in the league semi-finals the previous year, in the Gaelic Grounds, as Galway embarked on a tilt at history.
When Limerick met the new All-Ireland champions in Salthill in March of 2018, they trailed by 1-3 to 0-0 after just three minutes and found themselves eight behind at the break, before eclipsing Galway by 2-18 to 1-19. It was the breakthrough from which they never looked back.
When the teams encountered one another again in that spine-tingling All-Ireland final, Limerick’s metamorphosis was complete. Three All-Ireland titles in four years; a fourth successive Munster championship this summer and there is no telling what future baubles and glories lie ahead. Nothing, it seems, is enough.
Seán Finn was a 38th-minute substitute in that forgotten 2017 league semi-final, coming in for Seamus Hickey. He started in Salthill in 2018 at right corner back, in the company of Richie McCarthy and Richie English. Since then, he has become the shining light of consistent excellence in Limerick’s prized defensive unit, racking up four All-Stars as well as those three All-Irelands.
“Maybe these things you look back on when you are finished playing and saying jeez, they were great times,” he said at a media event prior to the start of the league in 2021. “You would love to really enjoy the moment for what it is. Particularly the All-Ireland occasion in 2018, you’d love to go back and enjoy the moment that bit more but … the pressure and the want to win and the fear of losing takes from that enjoyment element.
“So, to be able to enjoy it so much in that moment is quite difficult. I think when you look back in years to come, you’ll say that was fantastic. But now, when you really want to win, and you put so much pressure on yourself it is hard to enjoy a lot of these things. Obviously, I have made a good recovery from the cruciate and it seems a long time ago now.”
That reflection contains a flash of insight into whatever it is that has kept Limerick humming and slightly sectioned off from the praise and speculation surrounding their achievements. Fear. Hunger. An acute awareness of the uniqueness of opportunity. Manager John Kiely is a concise and clear communicator in his school-principal’s way: ‘humility’ was a word he used from the beginning, referencing the attitude of the Kilkenny hurling team in their indomitable years. Finn has that stuff.
There’s a terrific little clip in the ether when Finn meets former Kilkenny All-Star Jackie Tyrrell for a pre-All-Star promotional chat. Its winter in Adare and in reviewing the 2020 season, Tyrrell takes Finn back to a potentially disorienting moment. The opening minutes of the 2020 Munster final — deep winter; an empty stadium — and Finn is marking Waterford’s Dessie Hutchinson. The livewire attacker feints to shoot on his right, flicks the ball over Finn’s head and fires a slick point off his left. The defender in Tyrrell was intrigued by the potential gremlins the score could unleash.
“I have never seen that happen to you before. And I remember thinking to myself, we’ll find out exactly what Seán Finn is made of today,” he says before noting that Hutchinson would not score again for the remainder of the game. But Finn shook his head when asked how he dealt with that sequence in the moment.
“No problem. Again, I just trusted myself. That I had the work done, that I had the speed to manage him, had the hurling and that even if he had the ball I had the skillset to get a block down, get a flick in. I spent a lot of time practising those key skills of a defender and I trusted I would be able to apply them when I needed them.”
Halfway through the 2019 championship, Anthony Daly had Finn as a leading contender for hurler of the year after watching his dauntless role in the 12-point Munster final win over Tipp. “He has been absolutely superb for me. Even the days that they didn’t play so well he’s obliterated his marker,” he enthused. “Have we ever seen a full-back line [like] Finn, Casey and English? How long must we go back to see a full-back line like that?”
As it happened, the setback of long-term injuries to Casey (cruciate, October 2020) and English (cruciate, February 2020) forced Limerick to rebuild a new full-back line for 2021, featuring Finn, Dan Morrissey and Barry Nash. It just advertised the strength in depth which was emphasised in the gripping extra-time Munster final win against Clare.
Finn is the embodiment of the Limerick hurling revolution. His father Brian was part of the luckless 1994 Limerick vintage. Nineteen years later, Finn junior was part of the Limerick minor team that won a first Munster title in 29 years. An under-21 All-Ireland medal followed two years later and although Finn’s progress was interrupted by a cruciate injury in 2016, his maturation into one of the best defenders the game has seen was in perfect synchronicity with the rise of Limerick. And there are further heights to soar.