It was December 4th, 2012. The time was approaching 6.30pm and I was just arriving at Mick Neville Park in Rathkeale in West Limerick having left Ballincollig, Cork an hour and a half earlier. The new Cork-Mallow road is an improvement on the old version but it still isn't great. The road from there to Charleville isn't that wonderful either. It's a trying enough journey at that time of the year.
At 7pm the Limerick senior hurlers would begin the first collective training session of the fast-approaching season. The lights of the all-weather pitch and of the hurling wall signalled life on this dark end-of-year night.
As Christmas approached, the town itself would be full of new life as the Travellers diaspora arrived home to spend the festive time in their spiritual home. The main street would welcome back the top of the line Mercedes, Range Rovers and Lexus people carriers.
The players would soon arrive in their functional transport, glad to be part of this late year/early season new beginning.
There would be many trials and tribulations and not too many highs before that beautiful June day when we headed to the Greenhills Hotel for the meal before the first championship game of the season. For the previous six months this group of players (and all other county players who harbour visions of greatness) had devoted their young lives to ‘being right’ for this day.
It's a day I will never forget. Limerick, they told me, don't fear Tipperary. But beating Tipperary is another story. Limerick's victory was unexpected to most followers of hurling. The manner in which they achieved it was the reverse of the previous year's finish and result. Last year Limerick made better use of their substitutions and also finished better (and scored more).
In late April, after a Thursday night training session on the all-weather pitch in UL the panel adjourned to the one of the complex’s meeting rooms. It was the first time in my two years with Limerick that winning Munster, or dare to say it, an All-Ireland, was spoken about with conviction. It was great to hear the players actually verbalise that a championship trophy could be won that year.
This was blind faith but I think we were working on the principal that believing is seeing. Getting the players to that state of belief, for me, was key.
The on-field proof began to manifest itself with a very encouraging performance against Kilkenny on a balmy Sunday evening in mid-May in Martinstown. JP McManus and the Staker Wallace club pulled out all the stops to get the best opposition for the fixture and they don’t come any better than Kilkenny. On that evening in front of most of the All-Ireland-winning 1973 team, the present boys in green gave a first sign that there were better days ahead.
The first of those better days came on that sweltering early June evening in the Gaelic Grounds. Tipperary had beaten us fairly comprehensively in the Waterford Crystal Cup and were favourites, but Limerick’s performance against them the previous year gave an inner confidence that was very evident at half-time.
The positivity was bursting out through the words of team leaders Séamus Hickey, Gavin O'Mahony, Wayne McNamara, James Ryan and captain O'Grady .There would be no surrender.
We led by a goal at the break but with 18 minutes remaining trailed by 1-14 to 1-11. Memories of the previous year were trying to appear but were quickly dispatched as we outscored Tipperary by seven points (including two monster points by Shane Dowling and Dónal O Grady) to one in the closing stages.
I don’t know if I appreciated enough the value of the victory. The followers present that evening certainly did – it was probably an hour and a half before everybody was back in the dressing room.
The watershed happened for me in Martinstown. Kilkenny brought many of their marquee players for that challenge and Limerick were better than them.
It was a far remove from the opening league game the previous year when Clare beat us out the Gaelic Grounds gate. The same Clare team were taught a lesson by Kilkenny in the league semi-final a few months later. The realist in me, then, saw a fairly wide divide between where Limerick lay in the grand scheme of hurling things and where Kilkenny were at.
But here we were a year later, talking privately of Munster titles .
In the lead up to the game against Tipperary training was going well, and, very importantly, all our players were available for selection, a rare enough occurrence for any panel of players . There was a kind of a tangible confidence around the training ground in the week leading up to the game.
The tactics were simple enough; how we would limit Pádraig Maher’s influence from the wing back position and how we would deal with Noel McGrath around the middle of the field if he was deployed there at any time during the game. Going on to the playing field that day the players all knew the plan and executed it almost to a tee.
On Sunday they go to battle again. It’s basically the same Limerick group of players. They are an honourable, hardworking, keen, decent group of talented hurlers.
They are underdogs again after a poor enough league campaign. Maybe their watershed this year came when the coach and board parted company. We’ll see on Sunday.