Limerick are in the thick of it now. All summer, the All-Ireland champions have been hit with haymakers and hurricanes and somehow, their house comes through intact. The latest challenge arrived on an enthralling Sunday afternoon when they resisted the best Galway hurling hour of the year to return to their fourth All-Ireland final in three years. Only Brian Cody and Kilkenny stand between them and a third consecutive All-Ireland title. But that is a thorned and tricky ‘only’.
It finished 0-27 to 1-21. Galway exited with broken hearts and embellished reputations and a definite sense that Henry Shefflin can harness the volatile hurling talents within the land to future greatness. It was level after 65 minutes and high up in the stands, the crowd could see that Galway were lit with self-belief and energy.
But Limerick had the know-how. They landed the final three points of the game; two from David Reidy, not long in from the bench and a closing free from Diarmuid Byrnes. Just as Limerick survived a strenuous examination of body and soul against Brian Lohan’s Clare, now they have been pushed to the edge by Galway. They have two weeks to get ready for Cody and Kilkenny, who sauntered through their Saturday semi-final against Clare and whose figurehead knows a thing or two about the art of All-Ireland final preparation. Are Limerick tiring after three years of glittering brilliance. Are they worried?
“I’m going to be brutally honest with you, every day we go out the kitchen sink is fired at us. And whatever is left over is fired at us as well and we have had to stand up and take whatever has been fired at us all season long,” said John Kiely.
“And that’s just the way it is and I don’t see it going to change. But I know that every day our boys have stood up and withstood everything fired at them. They showed great resilience, determination, composure, calmness and an ability to see out the game, so I’m worried about nothing.”
That seems like an apt summary of where things are. The general dismissals of Galway’s chances here may have been coloured slightly by their underwhelming Leinster final show. And that must have stung garlanded hurlers like David Burke, Daithí Burke and Cathal and Pádraic Mannion. The senior men led the way here as Galway hurled with abandon shortly after half time to upend general expectations and the scoreboard.
And Shefflin was fused into the action, living every play. He looked as though he wanted this game as much as he has ever wanted to win a hurling contest in Croke Park. No joke those long night and early morning drives from Kilkenny. And after the flat Leinster final performance against his home county he watched his Galway team give every ounce of themselves here. One of the fascinations of Shefflin and Galway is that it pairs a man whose hurling life has been defined by a rare genius for winning All-Irelands with a county which has suffered unaccountable heartbreak at All-Ireland level. Ultimately they lost here but they lost knowing that they wrung every last ounce from themselves.
“Ah yeah, that’s all you can ask for,” Shefflin acknowledged.
“I think when you go into a group of people that I went into, and obviously ye would have been around some of the performances last year and you’re kind of saying, ‘Where are this team at?’ … I’ve often referenced it to the lads, I probably wasn’t quite sure myself. But we went down to Limerick in the national league, and that night I came out of Limerick saying, ‘Jesus, do you know what, there’s something in this group’.
“And I think we can say that again today. Obviously, look, we’d just love to be in the All-Ireland final because that’s what those players want to do. But did they give it everything? I think I referenced this before, I think all intercounty teams now just apply themselves so, so well.”
And Limerick are operating at a heightened frequency in that regard. Maybe not so many of their gilded names are reaching that pitch in the same numbers this year. But they found a way, with Aaron Gillane unstoppable in the first half and Kyle Hayes forceful as ever.
Cian Lynch, their uncanny playmaker, returned to the field after a 10-week layoff. Peter Casey, too, has returned to full fitness. If the last two championships have been an exhibition of their athletic and hurling prowess, then this summer they’ve been asked to call upon their deepest reserves of will and mental composure.
“I don’t know the answer to that question,” Shefflin said when asked if the better team lost here.
“I’d have to watch the match to tell you, because I think you get so emotionally enthralled in the game, you don’t really know. I do know we had a very good opportunity to beat the double All-Ireland champions, and we just came up short.”
That said it all.
Just Kilkenny left, then.