Kilkenny search for answers as Limerick aim to lay on another lesson

If Derek Lyng’s side are to end a painful losing sequence against Limerick in Saturday’s National Hurling League Division One semi-final, they will need young players to rise to the challenge

There was a sequence of play late in the All-Ireland final that distilled Limerick’s sudden dominance into a shot of whiskey: neat; no ice. Cathal O’Neill had just landed a daredevil point from under the Cusack Stand, with one leg suspended over the sideline, and immediately took up his station to face the restart.

Kilkenny’s puckout had been ransacked in the second half and, with just a few minutes left and six points between the teams, Eoin Murphy bet his last penny on TJ Reid. In the modern game Reid has been the pre-eminent forward under a dropping ball. Nobody else comes close. O’Neill jumped up and took the ball clean out of TJ’s sky.

David Reidy scored from O’Neill’s pass to stretch Limerick’s run of unanswered points to six. Earlier in the half there had been two sequences of five unanswered points. The only punctuation in Limerick’s performance were exclamation marks.

Remember the score after 42 minutes? Kilkenny 2-10 Limerick 0-11. You spend ages building a castle in the sand and Limerick just stomp on it, like a pantomime giant; fee-fi-fo-fum.


You wonder about the value of exposure. What is the point of learning if you can’t act on the lessons? Limerick’s last three national titles have been at Kilkenny’s expense. The 2022 All-Ireland was just a two-point game, but Limerick won last year’s league final by 11 points and the All-Ireland final by nine.

“I wanted to be here,” said the Kilkenny manager Derek Lyng after the league final last year, trying to rescue some juice from the pulp. “Players wanted to be here. I’d prefer to be playing the best team in the country. Obviously, today was a sobering experience for everybody and I think it grounds everybody. You just have to strip everything back and that’s what we’ll do.”

On that day, Kilkenny didn’t risk TJ Reid, who was carrying an injury; Adrian Mullen played but had only been back in full training for 10 days. Those factors imposed a ceiling on their performance. But Limerick were missing Kyle Hayes, Declan Hannon and Will O’Donoghue. In a staggering departure from the norm, Cian Lynch, Gearoid Hegarty, Peter Casey and Tom Morrissey – who came on at half-time – all failed to score. Limerick committed 15 wides in the second half. And still won by 11 points.

League matches, even finals, are biodegradable. The test of whether Kilkenny had gained any ground on Limerick was in the back-to-back All-Ireland finals. In 2022 they were level with seven minutes of normal time remaining; in 2023 they led for about 36 minutes altogether and were six points in front at one stage. They were level for the last time, though, with 20 minutes to go; after that, their daydream turned into a bad acid trip.

Did they take a different approach from one year to the next? Some important micro stuff was addressed. In 2022, for example, they failed to man-mark Hegarty and he punished their carelessness with 1-5 from play, claiming an astonishing nine puck-outs along the way. In 2023, when his form was dull anyway, they managed him much better. On the whole, their matchups were fine until the game jackknifed in their faces.

Between those finals Kilkenny changed managers – from Brian Cody to Lyng – but there was one critical overlap in their thinking: they both believed they could hurt Limerick with long balls.

In the 2022 final they played 20 long deliveries to their inside forwards and recovered just seven of them; remarkably, they played 20 long balls again last year and came up with just eight possessions. The gambit of landing puck-outs on the Limerick D had been a game-breaker in the 2019 All-Ireland semi-final – which Kilkenny won – and they picked up a couple of scores from that source in the first half of last year’s final too, but no more than that.

Of the 20 players Kilkenny used in last year’s All-Ireland final, eight of them were in their 30s. That wasn’t a problem for the Dublin footballers a week later, but Kilkenny kept returning to players who had been in harness for a decade or more, and of those only Eoin Murphy, TJ Reid and his brother Richie were still performing at a high level.

Plainly, the issue for Kilkenny wasn’t just to come back with a better plan, they needed to come back with a better squad. Did the material exist?

“The conveyor belt has slowed down very, very much,” says Nicky Brennan, the former Kilkenny player and manager, who covers their games for local radio now. “That’s Kilkenny’s dilemma at the moment. We just haven’t been finding the players. In fairness to Derek and the lads over the team you couldn’t fault them for not spreading the net. We’ve been trying to bring forward new players and we haven’t made huge progress.”

In the last decade, Kilkenny have contested just two All-Ireland Under-20/21 finals, both against Limerick. From the team that was well beaten in the 2017 final Kilkenny picked up five players who played some part in last year’s senior final. But the team that Lyng managed to win the Under-20 All-Ireland two years ago has been a dry well.

Timmy Clifford and Billy Drennan both made appearances early in last year’s senior championship, without making a breakthrough; Padraig Moylan and Harry Shine have been given game time in this year’s league, and there are tentative hopes for Moylan.

Around this time last year, Drennan seemed to be the coming man. He had been productive and lively in many of Kilkenny’s league matches, and very good against Cork in the semi-final. Against Limerick in the league final, though, his limitations were exposed.

“No one from the under-20 team that won the All-Ireland two years ago has stepped up,” says Richie Power, the former Kilkenny player. “None of them put their hands up to say, ‘I’m good enough for this, give me my chance.’ That’s probably the disappointing thing about it, having won the Under-20 All-Ireland, hoping and thinking that a couple of players will make the step up.

“You need the likes of Billy [Drennan] to be putting his hand up for a starting spot. An excellent freetaker, a super guy to take a score if given the opportunity. I just think maybe the work rate and the work ethic is what Billy needs to improve on. The league final [last year] was a huge step up for Billy and it probably showed the one or two weaknesses in his game. The hooking, the blocking, the chasing, the pressure – stuff like that.”

The Higher Education Rising Stars hurling team – essentially the Fitzgibbon Cup All-Stars – was announced during the week without a Kilkenny player in the frame. There were four from Clare, three each from Galway, Limerick and Tipperary and two from Waterford.

Drennan was one of a handful of Kilkenny players on the Maynooth team, and Eoin Cody was the marquee player for SETU Carlow, but he has struggled to find his best stride this year. For now, that’s a concern more than a problem.

In the Kilkenny forward line, though, there is an obvious issue around succession. For more than 20 years they have been blessed. By the time DJ Carey had reached the twilight years of his career Henry Shefflin was already the most important player in the Kilkenny attack, and by the time Shefflin’s career reached terminal decline, TJ Reid and Richie Hogan were in full cry.

For most of the last decade Reid has carried the Kilkenny forward line on his back, but for how much longer? He turned 36 in November and it is 16 years since he made his first appearance in an All-Ireland final. Could this be his last year? How much more can they expect?

Without scoring from play Reid was magnificent in the 2022 All-Ireland against Limerick; he landed nine frees, two of which he won himself, and was responsible for six assists. In last year’s final, though, he couldn’t reach that level of influence. They wore him down.

The same was true of Cody. In the first half of last year’s final he scored a terrific goal and looked electric at times, but in the second half Limerick reduced him to just three possessions; in the previous year’s final Limerick snuffed him out too. Adrian Mullen was marginalised in both of those finals.

Cody and Mullen are the only candidates to succeed Reid as the leader of the Kilkenny attack. When it mattered, neither of them has produced a big performance against Limerick. Other performance metrics are available, and they were both outstanding in last year’s championship; until the final. Kilkenny are trying to find a way to beat Limerick. They have no chance without Cody and Mullen operating near full capacity.

“If I had been involved I’m not sure I would have wanted to meet Limerick in a league semi-final,” says Power, “especially if you’re going to potentially come up against them later in the year. If you go down to a league semi-final and maybe ship a heavy defeat does that creep into lads’ heads that we’ve come up against them the last four times and haven’t beaten them yet? These things can seep in.

“In terms of new players, Shane Murphy has probably put his hand up for selection, but apart from that you’re going back to the old reliables. I don’t think they’ve found the two or three or four players that we needed.”

Are Kilkenny any closer? Even on a wild March Saturday Limerick will give them a straight answer.