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Jackie Tyrrell: Mentally soft Limerick learn hurling world a fickle place

Even the All-Ireland champions must accept that distractions can get to everyone

On this Sunday nine weeks ago, we had the ultimate Phoney War take place in Croke Park when Waterford and Limerick met in the league final.

Go back and watch it and that’s what strikes you, how it rivals those early months of World War II for its lack of intensity, savagery and real purpose. A national title was on the line but you wouldn’t know it.

Limerick and Waterford played out a timid and lacklustre league final that day. It had an inevitability about it long before James Owens blew up. Limerick did what they had to do and did it for long periods in third gear, almost yawning as they went.

The hurling world is a fickle place. Nine weeks ago these were the top two teams in the league. All their plans were running like clockwork, everything they wanted out of the spring had come to pass. That’s partly why we saw such a nothing game in the final – Waterford were happy enough, whatever happened. And Limerick were happy enough to take advantage.


The concerning thing from the Cork game wasn't just that they lost

Look at the two of them now. Both of them are staring down the barrel of the gun. Limerick really need a win, Waterford really, really need a win. Losing just isn’t an option for either of them.

We constantly get reminders not to get too carried away in sport, for good or for bad. In the space of seven days, Cork turned their performance levels upside-down and went to the Gaelic Grounds and nailed Limerick to the wall. That’s in just seven days – imagine what can happen in nine weeks.

Think of where Limerick were after they left Croke Park that day nine weeks ago. They were after walking a league title. Everyone kept telling them they were the best team in the country, that they had handled being All-Ireland champions perfectly, that they had the deepest panel and the fiercest competition for places. What could possibly go wrong?

Now look where they are. Going to Waterford needing a win, first and foremost. But needing as well to arrest the doubts that have to have crept in after the Cork game. Maybe it was only a blip but they don’t know that for sure yet. If they’re not doubting themselves at this stage, if they’re questioning everything, then they’re in real trouble.

No favours

The nature of this year’s league actually did Limerick no favours. It was diluted from start to finish. Once nobody was getting relegated and nobody was getting promoted, everybody went into it easing off on the throttle. If it had been one of the hell-for-leather leagues like we’ve had for the past five or six years, then Limerick would have been stress-tested more than they were.

As it was, they lost one game at home to Cork and were held by Clare on the last day of the group stage when they were already guaranteed to top Division 1A. After that, they beat Laois, Dublin and Waterford to lift the trophy.

How many dogfights were they in? How many games did management come away from knowing they have this problem or that problem to solve? How could they know, one way or the other, where they were at going into the Munster championship?

One thing jumped out at me, screaming mental softness

The concerning thing from the Cork game wasn’t just that they lost. It was that Cork were able to dismantle Limerick’s simplistic but highly-effective gameplan. Limerick’s half-back line is the most crucial line on the team and the source of so much of their power and momentum. But this was the poorest I have seen them perform in a number of different categories.

They never created the platform on which to build attacks. They did not deal well with the deep roaming roles of Daniel Kearney and Luke Meade. They didn't drop back to cut out the space for Patrick Horgan and Alan Cadogan. Most surprising of all, they were so poor under the high ball which is their bread and butter.

These are mental errors. They come from poor communication, a lack of focus, switching off. If Daniel Kearney has found space in a pocket by drifting away from Diarmaid Byrnes, it's because Byrnes hasn't got onto his midfielder or wing-forward to make sure Kearney is being picked up. Same with Luke Meade on the other wing.

Mentally soft

Limerick were mentally soft in this game. There’s no other way to describe it. It really looked like they went in believing their own hype. That’s understandable, given how well everything had been going for them, but only up to a point. Waterford have to be alive to any sign of it on Sunday. If it’s still there, Limerick are in trouble.

Here's how it translated to the pitch. One thing jumped out at me, screaming mental softness. Think back to the start of the second half and a couple of routine long puck-outs from Anthony Nash. These weren't the laser missiles from Nash that go 70 yards at head height, they were just ordinary long puck-outs coming out of the sky midway between the 65 and the edge of the D.

Job number one for Limerick  is to recalibrate mentally, to head down to Walsh Park as the hunter again

The first one bounced about 30 metres out. Alan Cadogan came out from corner-forward to collect it and after a short solo run, he played a nice handpass to Luke Meade who was looping out around him. Simple score for Meade.

Now, that can happen. It’s no big crime to lose your positioning for a puck-out once in a while. I rewound it a few times to try and work out whose mistake it was and I actually couldn’t tell who was supposed to be attacking the ball in the air – that told me that their initial set-up was the problem. Okay, fine. Just fix it for the next one.

The next one was the killer. It came less than a minute later and it landed in exactly the same spot on the pitch in exactly the same way. Nash went long, the ball bounced, and Cadogan was out to it again. This time he wheeled to his right and took his own score.

Alarm bells

That second point rang huge alarm bells for me. Limerick’s half-back line is usually so imperious, so full of leaders and organisers and communicators. How could they let something like that happen twice in the space of a minute? It felt to me like cast-iron proof that they weren’t mentally prepared for the game.

Those mistakes weren’t happening last year when Limerick were ravenous in every match, in every contact, on every puck-out. The only thing that has changed in the meantime is they’ve become All-Ireland champions.

Hype is like the devil. There’s a bit of it in everyone. It happens in every successful career at some stage because everyone is human. No matter how hard you try, a part of you ends up thinking you have it sussed. But you never have this game sussed.

In 2012, we got blown away in a Leinster final by Galway. Hype wasn’t the only reason it happened but it was in the mix. We were All-Ireland champions, we had hammered Dublin a few weeks beforehand and we were invincible. But not for long.

Galway blitzed us. We didn't know what was going on. I didn't know who I was marking, I didn't know where I was meant to be on the pitch. Tommy Walsh hit two of the craziest sidelines balls of his life straight to Galway players. Think about that – one of the greatest players in the game making such a basic mental error.

We were punch drunk, all over the place, completely run ragged. Before I knew where I was, I was sitting in the Crowne Plaza looking at a beef dinner I didn’t want wondering what the Jesus happened in the last few hours.

When you are All-Ireland champions, it’s so hard to keep that edge. It’s so difficult to be always in that mind-set of hunting teams down and proving points to people. At a certain stage, you feel you don’t have anything left to prove.

How could Limerick feel otherwise after last year? They won one of the best All-Ireland championships there has ever been. They were tested at every turn and they came through it all. Then they strolled through the league. Imagine how hard it would be to convince yourself you still have something to prove after that.

Exceptional requests

It took me years to work out the best way of approaching it. Striving for the extra per cent, keeping the head down and staying out of the spotlight is impossible. So you have to limit it to exceptional requests and circumstances.

Everywhere you go, you’re the person people want to talk to. In a small gathering, you’re the main focus – or you feel like you are. At the All Stars, in your work environment, you’re in situations where nobody is asking you to prove anything when it comes to hurling. All they want is their own small connection to an achievement that is already in the past.

You get asked to all sorts of events, weddings, parties, functions. You’re now a pin-up in hurling terms whether you like it or not. You could go around with a scissors in your pocket cutting ribbons and opening businesses if you wanted. All distractions. And all the way through them, everyone is nice to you and nobody is testing you.

Look at Shane O’Donnell, who had to deal with all manner of crazy sideshows after the 2013 All-Ireland. That’s the world you’re in now and it’s great and you owe it to yourself to embrace it. But you have to come back and hurl to following year too.

It takes a mental toll. No two ways about it. Going all those months without hardship, without anyone testing your hunger, it can absolutely make you mentally soft without you knowing it. All the advice in the world from former players only tells you the half of it. You have to go through it to understand it.

We find it very hard as a society to say no to requests for our time. We live in small counties in a small country and everyone knows everyone so we all worry what people will think of us. What I found over the course of my career was that saying no became a very important skill I was able to develop.

“Sorry, no, I just can’t do it.” It might sound harsh and to some people in the outside world, it might come across in a way that you don’t mean it to. But it’s your time and your career and nobody will look after it if you don’t. Otherwise, any mental slip you make has a habit of showing up at the worst possible time.

None of this has to be fatal for Limerick. Far from it. In time, they might come back and tell us that the Cork game was the best thing that happened to them. They will have had some harsh conversations and even harsher training sessions over the past fortnight. Job number one for them is to recalibrate mentally, to head down to Walsh Park as the hunter again.

If they do that, they can get their season back on track. If they don’t, I wouldn’t rule out a surprise from Waterford.