Galway 0-26 Limerick 1-17
Part of the reason the clash between Limerick and Galway in last year’s championship was so eagerly anticipated was the belief that the Westerners had the raw material to challenge their successors as champions.
Pearse Stadium in Salthill struggled on Sunday to welcome summer hurling in the drizzle with convalescent sunshine eventually showing its face. The enduring oddness of the empty stadium was complemented by the first time anyone could remember a strong sea breeze not making itself felt in the ground.
The match shed further light on the county's relationship and the two players, who went off injured in November, Cathal Mannion and Joe Canning returned to the lists, the latter off the bench and both had influential roles in this impressive victory and combined for a great score on the hour.
In their breakthrough year of 2018, Limerick took huge encouragement from a big comeback league win over the then All-Ireland champions in Salthill. This time the boot was on the other foot, as Galway gave a measured and focused display to beat this year’s reigning champions in what was Limerick’s first defeat since July 27th 2019 when they were surprised by Kilkenny in the All-Ireland semi-final – and Galway’s first defeat of them since 2017.
This was a decent arm wrestle between two of the most physically imposing teams in the game but Galway held the initiative all the way through. Apart from a few seconds at the start Limerick never led and although they were always there, pressing and chasing until in the final quarter, the winners eased out of sight.
Evan Niland was the star turn for the winners, shooting 0-14 from frees and still finding time for three wides and if no player dominated the afternoon, the home side had enough positive cameos to make an encouraging big picture for manager Shane O'Neill up against his own county.
Aside from Niland, there were sharp contributions from David Burke, who hurt his hamstring and took himself off, Cathal Mannion and Conor Whelan, against providing energetic link play around the middle and shooting three points. Canning's arrival for an eye-catching deep lying role saw him run at the defence, take the bangs and dish it off to Cathal Mannion for a score.
Three minutes later, he reminded everyone including the young pretender that he was still well up to long-range frees, hitting one from his own 45m line.
Hurler of the year Gearóid Hegarty was also a handful, finding space down the right wing, shooting two glorious points and providing Seamus Flanagan with a goal assist in the 27th minute to help keep the match in the melting pot by half-time when they trailed by 1-8 to 0-14.
Cathal O'Neill had a chance a minute earlier but shot weakly at Éanna Murphy. Galway rarely threatened goals and when they did, a block by Kyle Hayes averted the danger but as is their wont, they kept the scoreboard ticking. Overall, though Galway's backs were combative and resourceful under pressure.
For the second half Limerick brought on Aaron Gillane, who took his quota of high-quality scores, Darragh O'Donovan and Tom Morrissey.
That Niland was given so many chances to do damage incensed Limerick manager John Kiely, who had protested the number of frees awarded in the opening match against Tipperary and again this weekend he was unhappy with a free count that broke nearly two to one against his side.
“It does appear that the game has changed in the last four months whilst we’ve all been at home and somebody has decided to take the tackle out of the game. I’d love to know who they were and when that was decided.
“Because we had nobody here watching the game today and in 12 months time we are not going to have anybody here watching it if it’s 36 frees they are going to be sitting down to watch, and however many re-starts and sidelines.
“I think the people at home today were saved €20 because that wasn’t a spectacle that anybody would like to be a part of.”
Whereas he accepted that some frees awarded against Limerick were legitimate, he also accused Galway of simulation to ‘buy’ frees.
"Yeah, there were some clear examples of simulation there today. A couple were very embarrassing. None of us want to see that brought in as part of our game, you know. But having said that the referees' interpretations of the rules and our understanding of that is at an all-time low in my opinion. We don't really clearly know what it is we are expected to do."
Both sides decided to go with relatively orthodox formations, which created a decent amount of space for players even if conditions didn’t help with the ball being fumbled and the ground difficult.
O’Neill had a sunnier attitude to the game: “Beforehand, you’re looking for a performance or a result – we were looking for a bit of both and ended up with both which is great. Performance-wise, I thought we played well so early in the season – still an awful lot of work to do. Playing the way we did, to score 26 points was great. So overall, happy enough.”
He resisted several attempts to declare himself pleased with having stopped Limerick’s run or speculate on the ‘risk-reward’ of going toe-to-toe with the champions.
“We weren’t looking at Limerick. We were looking at ourselves to see how we would get the most out of our players. I thought some of the movement and the striking of the forwards was excellent and I thought the backs were really tight and defended aggressively, which was great.”
GALWAY: 1. E Murphy; 2. S Loftus, 3. G McInerney, 4. J Fitzpatrick; 5. A Tuohey, 6. P Mannion, 7. F Burke; 8. D Burke (0-2), 9. C Mannion (0-2); 10. J Cooney, 11. E Niland (0-14, all frees), 12. B Concannon (0-1); 15. J Mannion (0-1), 14. N Burke (0-1), 13. C Whelan (0-3). Subs: 26. J Coen for Burke (35 mins), 19. D Morrissey for Loftus (48 mins), 18. S Cooney for Tuohey (50 mins), 25. J Canning (0-2, one free) for J Cooney (50 mins), 20. J Flynn for J Mannion (55 mins).
LIMERICK: 1. N Quaid; 4. R English, 3. D Morrissey, 2. A Costello; 5. D Byrnes (0-1, free), 6. K Hayes, 7. B Nash; 8. W O'Donoghue, 9. B O'Grady ; 10 G Hegarty (0-2), 12. D Reidy (0-8, seven frees), 11. C Lynch, 13. C O'Neill, 14. S Flanagan (1-0), 15. P Casey (0-2). Subs: 21. A Gillane (0-4, two frees) for O'Neill (half-time), 24. D O'Donovan for O'Grady (half-time), 26. B Ryan for English (55 mins), 23. T Morrissey for Reidy (55 mins), A Breen for Casey (60 mins).
Referee: James Owens (Wexford)