Seán Moran: Limerick riding the crest of a wave that shows no signs of breaking

Champions show what can be done when good development work is combined with talent

Limerick celebrate at Croke Park.  Three All-Ireland wins in four years   have happened so quickly that it must bewilder the formerly long-suffering hurling community in the county.  Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Limerick celebrate at Croke Park. Three All-Ireland wins in four years have happened so quickly that it must bewilder the formerly long-suffering hurling community in the county. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

 

Ka-boom! That happened quickly. Limerick’s relentless transition took them quickly from what we might call the Breakthrough Period to the Dominant Period.

It was almost as inexorable as the movement of ball from their defence through the lines to the point where open ground is spotted in front of their marauding forward.

So comprehensive was the defeat of Cork that immediately the team had been catapulted into conversations about where they stood in the all-time pecking order.

It has been a groundbreaking achievement by a whole variety of metrics. Take this one: Sunday was Limerick’s 10th All-Ireland. They become the fourth county to break double digits in hurling and the sixth overall – and the first not to be part of the ruling caste in either game.

As is almost a mantra, Kilkenny, Cork and Tipperary have two-thirds of all hurling All-Irelands and Dublin and Kerry half of the football. These five counties have all been on double digits for the past 88 years since Kilkenny beat, coincidentally, Limerick in 1933.

Now, Limerick have joined them. Predictably they are also the first county outside the Brahmin caste to win three in four years.

It has happened so quickly that it must bewilder the long-suffering hurling community in the county. Until three years ago, Limerick were essentially – with a few more All-Irelands and a few fewer lost finals – Mayo in hurling.

Next month Mayo embark on an 11th final since they last lifted Sam Maguire. In 2018 it was Limerick’s sixth final and nothing to show for their efforts all the way back to 1973.

I first met Eamonn Cregan when he was managing Offaly in the early 1990s and working in an office in Nenagh to which I called on a couple of occasions back then. It always struck me as almost Shakespearean that he led the county to victory over his own.

Unlike Coriolanus, he had no argument with his own land but would be honour-bound to do his best by Offaly, which he did but his passion was for Limerick, bred into him as his father Ned had been on the famous Mackey team of the 1930s.

It was from Cregan that I first heard the lament, “one All-Ireland in X years . . .”

In this case X was the length of time since 1940 with the one break in the misery coming in 1973 when he had been a key player, switched from the forwards to centre back for the final where he excelled.

Historical irony

Among the many concepts to which he introduced me was the difficulty for players hoping to retain an All-Ireland. He and his team-mates had been convinced that they were working just as hard as they had the year before but in retrospect – his brother Mick was the physical trainer – he knew that that hadn’t been the case.

Kilkenny would argue that injuries had inhibited them in 1973 whereas they were fully loaded a year later when taking revenge. This establishes a great historical irony. It was the only blip in what might have been a four-in-a-row for Kilkenny, who won the All-Ireland in 1972, ’74 and ’75.

Forty-five years later, Limerick lost the All-Ireland semi-final to Kilkenny after match officials failed to spot a late deflection that should have resulted in a 65. Alternative histories aren’t gospel but that was a critical impediment to last Sunday being a four-in-a-row.

In these pages earlier this week, Cregan outlined the pioneering work of former Limerick hurler Shane Fitzgibbon and his ‘Lifting the Treaty’ project, which in time became the current well-resourced development system, driven by another former 1973 Limerick hero, Joe McKenna.

Time flies and the daunting road ahead at the very first development meeting with the tentative approaches to people like Cregan to get involved can now be seen as a pathway to the summit.

Current manager John Kiely challenged his players not to settle but to “push their boundaries”.

What’s the message here? It shows that with structures and work a county can make the best of its raw material. On the less enabling front, Limerick does have a population of nearly 200,000 and the benevolence of JP McManus but they have worked to transform the county.

There has been justifiable focus on the backroom team. For the past two championships Limerick have given their best performance in the All-Ireland final. The work of the physical trainer Mikey Kiely in bringing them to peak fitness for the cutting edge of the season has been remarkable.

For a team that looked out of shape in the Munster semi-final against Cork, they quickly improved – defying one sceptic, who cautioned that it was like trying to fatten a pig before market – and turned up in formidable shape for the final.

Performance coach

Then there has been the role of performance coach Caroline Currid, who has an amazing CV of bullseyes with sports people and teams, especially in Gaelic games, helping to bring All-Irelands to Tyrone (2008), Tipperary (2010), Dublin (2011) and all of Limerick’s recent three. Almost inevitably, she was on a year out in 2019.

John Kiely has publicly acknowledged her influence.

In the modern age – in both football and hurling – we are seeing extended periods of dominance maybe because a good team of players with good direction can avail of the advances in sports science and preparation detail to get more out of themselves.

Limerick have become such a well-oiled and talented machine that, even allowing for the recency bias that always surfaces after All-Irelands, it’s hard to see where a realistic challenge will emerge.

e: smoran@irishtimes.com

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