Jackie Tyrrell: Limerick are primed to dominate for years to come
No other county could feel this was an All-Ireland that got away from them
Limerick’s Peter Casey and Sean Finn celebrate after beating Waterford to win the All-Ireland SHC. Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Sometimes in sport you have to stand back, put your hands up and admire beauty taking place in front of you. It wasn’t just Waterford who had to accept defeat on Sunday evening, it was all of hurling. There are some years where the draw might have caught a good team somewhere along the way and they find themselves looking at the All-Ireland winners and thinking, “That should have been us.” Not this year, though.
There was nobody from any county watching Declan Hannon give his speech on Sunday and feeling like this was an All-Ireland they left behind them. Limerick put on the performance their dominance of the championship deserved. In a year like no other, they served up a pre-Christmas five-course meal, packed full of strength, speed, power, skill and a tactical masterclass. They left no room for argument.
One of the really impressive things about them was the way they brought their game to a height they knew they could handle and basically asked Waterford if they had it in them to keep up. It was like they were striding off up Mount Everest to the point where oxygen was in short supply and then turning and showing Waterford how easily they were breathing.
It was a performance born out of meticulous preparation, a long-term honing of their skills and a short-term refining of the gameplan. The two main reasons why Waterford beat Kilkenny in the All Ireland semi-final was their dominance in the air and their running game. Kilkenny found they could not cope with either threat as they got overwhelmed in the second half.
In preparation for the final, it is clear that Limerick identified those two threats and organised themselves to take those options away from Waterford to see what they had left. The answer was not a lot that could cause damage. Waterford were left bereft of ideas as to how to get good quality possession in the full-forward line and, as a result, the good goal chances they created against Kilkenny became half-chances against Limerick.
Once Limerick shut down the things that made Waterford dangerous, they proceeded to overpower them in the middle third. They were physically dominant which made the game a nightmare mentally for the Waterford players. Imagine it – you’re in an All-Ireland final, you can’t win ball in the air, you can’t get your runners going through and you’re being pushed around the place in the physical exchanges. It’s very difficult to keep your head up and keep fighting the good fight in those circumstances.
Limerick’s championship record in 2020 is Played: 5, Won: 5, For: 3-141, Against: 3-104. That’s an average winning margin of 7.4 points per game. They have beaten teams in the trenches, in the physicality stakes, in shootouts, in monsoons and they have beaten teams tactically. It’s a case of pick your poison when you meet this Limerick team. They will take you on whatever way you want. There’s no style of game they feel uncomfortable playing.
John Kiely’s men played this year angry and hurt. They took last year’s semi-final loss to Kilkenny to heart and came back with a chip on their shoulders. The championship was a relentless drive to secure their second Liam MacCarthy in three years. They showed little or no mercy to anyone. You can only congratulate them on a complete season.
In all honesty, it doesn’t leave a lot of hope for the rest of the country in the short term. If you want to go hunting through them for weaknesses, you’re not going to get very far. Remember, they played out a perfect championship without their main full-back and corner-back. When Mike Casey and Richie English return, they will only get stronger.
Management? No weakness there. John Kiely and Paul Kinnerk aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Their backroom team would need their own bus going to matches and every one of them fulfils their role.
As for the players, go through it and how many do you see dropping off in the next couple of years? Nickie Quaid and Graeme Mulcahy were the only players last Sunday who have passed their 30th birthday. None of the rest of them will even do that in 2021. Gearóid Hegarty, Aaron Gillane, Seán Finn, Kyle Hayes, Séamus Flanagan, Cian Lynch, Tom Morrissey - not one of these lads is even 27 yet.
Scared? You should be! I saw Cian Lynch being interviewed afterwards and he said something along the lines of: “There’s no point resting on this and thinking it is enough.” That’s exactly the mentality they should have. When that penny drops with a team, it is a brilliant place to be. You get this realisation throughout the set-up that an incredible opportunity is open to you now. Drive on. Win the next one. Win the one after that. Be selfish. Win as much as you can while you can.
As for everybody else, the question of how to stop them will dictate the way forward. There is always a tendency to look at the All-Ireland champions as the future of the game, the gospel on where the sport is going. But I always think that when you go back and look in hindsight, it is the thought and planning that goes into stopping them that actually decides the direction of the game.
Put it this way. If everybody decides that the way to beat Limerick is just to out-Limerick them, then I don’t see an awful lot of drama in next year’s championship. Why would you take Limerick on at their own game? For one thing, they have a three-year headstart on you. For another, it’s exactly what they want you do to. Fight fire with fire? Limerick have a year’s supply of matches and a tanker full of petrol.
But everybody has to have a plan. Hurling tends to move quickly, styles come and styles go. Somebody will come up with a formula for playing Limerick that will cause them problems. That’s just the nature of the game.
They’ll have to do it quickly, though. The downside to a winter All-Ireland for everybody else is that the off-season is going to be nowhere near as long as it usually would be. Christmas is next week, 2021 starts this day fortnight. If county goes before club next year – and all the vibes are going in that direction – you could see the league starting in seven or eight weeks. We’re probably only around four months or so out from the start of the championship.
No matter when it starts or what it looks like, the problem for everyone else is obvious. Anyone who has serious designs on the All-Ireland has to have a plan for coming up against Limerick. So with that in mind, let’s go through the counties and look at what they need to put in place to take on the green machine.
First off, it’s clear that Waterford need to improve their strength and power. They need greater physicality around the field so that has to be one of Liam Cahill’s areas of focus over the next few months. They aren’t alone in this but it was the most obvious shortcoming last Sunday.
On top of that, they could do with unearthing three new players to come straight into the team. On this score, you had to be impressed with Mickey Kiely in the under-20 game on Tuesday night. He looks a really good prospect, a big strong inside forward who is direct and can score. Someone like him in beside Dessie Hutchinson would be a tonic for Waterford. A couple of decades of the rosary for Tadhg De Búrca’s knee would not go astray either.
A collapse in the second half against Waterford is very unlike Kilkenny. That said, an over-reliance on TJ Reid highlights a big issue for Brian Cody and isn’t a new problem. At times Kilkenny look confused whether to go short or long. The fact that this is relatively new to them suggests they need to work on the short game with Limerick in mind. If they really put their minds to developing a workable short game, I wouldn’t rule them out. One thing is for sure though: long ball into a suffocating Limerick defence will not work.
Probably the team that is best-equipped physically to go toe-to-toe with Limerick. At times in the semi-final, they looked like they could beat them so they at least can face into 2021 knowing they have a chance. Anyone challenging Limerick will need goals so moving Joe Canning in to full-forward would be a good first step for them.
But more importantly, they need to trust their defenders and go 15-on-15. Limerick have perfected going around and over the sweeper to hurt teams. Keeping Pádraic Mannion as a spare man isn’t going to cut the mustard.
Limerick seem to have their number of late, for whatever reason. But we do know that Tipperary will always be the one team who can score goals. Liam Sheedy won’t be delighted with the age profile of some of his leaders but they are proven guys so he will get the best out of whatever’s left in them.
A return to form of Séamie Callanan, Paudie Maher, the McGrath brothers and Bubbles O’Dwyer would put Tipperary in the sort of place they need to be. Does anyone doubt that if those guys are firing, along with Brendan and Bonner Maher and Mikey Breen that Tipperary wouldn’t find their own style of hurling to cause Limerick problems? They need some of these under-20s, the likes of Paddy Cadell and others, to come through and nail down starting places, just to bring freshness to the set-up.
A strange one. A team struggling for consistency of work-rate and identity but yet the team that has caused Limerick the most trouble in recent years. They way they’ve done it is by creating space and getting runners from deep. They have it in their locker to find ways to take apart this Limerick team - or at least they did in 2018 and 2019.
The problem is, they’re not the same team and neither are Limerick. Daniel Kearney was key to those wins, for example, but he’s not around anymore. It looks like 2021 is a new-broom year for Cork. Challenging Limerick might be a bit far off in the distance for them.
First job for Brian Lohan as soon as flights are allowed – get on a plane and get Peter Duggan back to Clare and in the team. And make sure that while he’s away, someone is stockpiling cotton wool to wrap Colm Galvin, Tony Kelly and John Conlon in. Harness the green shoots of 2020 in Aron Shanagher, Rory Hayes, Cathal Malone and Ryan Taylor. Clare have enough main men to be a factor. But they need depth and support for them.
A reconfiguration of the way Wexford play is needed. They became predictable with the running short game which Galway and Clare shut down. Imagine how easily Limerick would do the same. Try working the ball out through Hegarty and Morrissey 15 times a half, see where it gets you. At the very least, they need a Plan B to keep teams guessing. No better person to think outside the box than Davy Fitz.
Dublin and Laois
Neither of these sides can feasibly challenge Limerick as they will struggle with the power game. But Dublin have some good players coming through and Chris Crummy at centre-forward is the kind of thing that could get them a foothold. As for Laois, the gulf to Limerick is vast but whatever is in this group Cheddar Plunket will maximise it.