Limerick enter uncharted waters playing without talisman Lynch

All-Ireland champions cannot give someone the impossible task of replacing their best man

Limerick enter the unfamiliar territory of playing without Cian Lynch. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

The last time Cian Lynch didn’t feature in a championship match for Limerick, he was still a boy of 20. He was lean and keen and red-topped like a kitchen match. The game was an All-Ireland qualifier against Westmeath in July 2016 and Lynch had to miss out because he’d twanged a hamstring in an under-21 match against Cork the previous Wednesday. Nobody knew how long he’d be missing.

Limerick hurling lived differently back then. The whole scene hummed with desperation. Tipperary had run them out of Munster a fortnight previously and had only needed to score 3-12 to do so. Afterwards, a Limerick supporter came onto the pitch in Thurles while Lynch was talking to his uncle and roared abuse at him.

"A disgrace," said Joe Quaid, who was standing close by when it happened. "Cian just walked away and went into the dressing room. He walked away visibly upset. I'd be hoping he wouldn't take it to heart. I got plenty of abuse over the years, you have to park it."

This was what it was to hurl for Limerick in those days. In Lynch's first three seasons, Limerick won three championship matches – his debut against Clare in 2015 and two qualifiers against Westmeath, the second of which he missed. As it turned out, he was fit to play the following week against Clare but they were beaten again, scoured from the summer before serious business was afoot. You wouldn't have wished a long career on any Limerick hurler back then, least of all a 20-year-old kid.


Yet spin the tape on and the light gets brighter the further you go. Three-time All-Ireland winner, three-time All Star, twice Hurler of the Year, man-of-the-match in last year's All-Ireland final. Throughout the greatest period Limerick hurling has known, Lynch has been the whizz to everyone else's bang. He appeals equally to the kids who eat up his flicks and figaries on social media and the old-timers who sit in the stand and purr as he steers a game to his liking.

Here’s the thing though. It may well be that Cian Lynch’s greatest asset has been hiding in plain sight this whole time. That Westmeath game was six years ago and Lynch hasn’t missed a championship encounter since. Durability isn’t the first thing that springs to mind when you think of him but without it, none of the rest would matter.

Limerick have played 34 championship matches in the seven-and-a-bit seasons that cover his senior career and he has played in 33 of them. Only Declan Hannon and Graeme Mulcahy match that number for consistency across that timespan, with Nickie Quaid one game behind on 32. Nobody else in the squad has more than 29.


But now they have to plan without him. Not just for tomorrow against Tipperary in the Gaelic Grounds but for the rest of the Munster Championship at least. If they don't win the province, the All-Ireland quarter-final is six weeks from today. If they do, the All-Ireland semi-final is a fortnight later. In the meantime, they find out who to keep the ship sailing with a Cian Lynch-shaped hole in the hull.

"You take a game like last year's Munster final," says James Ryan, the workhorse midfielder who was one of Lynch's on-field bodyguards through those first few seasons on the scene. "When Limerick were so poor in the first half, he kept them some way ticking. Anything that was positive about Limerick in that first half - and there was very little that was – it went through him. He was winning puck-outs, he won a couple of frees that stopped the rot. That's what they're going to miss if the same situation arises."

TJ Ryan gave Lynch his debut back in 2015, playing him at corner-forward against Clare in his first summer out of minor. Lynch’s arrival on the scene had been extensively billed - if you weren’t beguiled by his lineage as the nephew of Ciarán Carey, you were thrilled by his displays for Ard Scoil Rís and as captain of the Limerick minors.

“He had it from day one,” says Ryan. “All the skills but the temperament too. So when you’re looking at what Limerick will miss without him, it’s his ability on the ball, it’s his habit of winning that ball that isn’t his to win. He’s made of rubber too - he bounces off lads that are bigger than him.

“But I think most of all, it’s the fact that as long as he’s on the pitch, he’s a problem for the other team. They have to make a plan for him, they have to spend time working out how they’re going to handle him, who’s going to follow him, who’s going to fill the space when he leaves the middle, all that stuff. Now they don’t have to do that. I’ll not say it makes life easy for the opposition managers but it’s one less thing they have to worry about.”

The question for Limerick now and in the weeks ahead is how to replace him. To which the obvious answer is: why would you even try? Lynch is a one-of-one hurler, unrepeatable and uncopiable. Handing the number 11 jersey to someone else and telling him to go and do what Lynch does is really just setting that person up to fail.

“His speed of hand is what sets him apart,” says James Ryan. “A lot of what he does is uncoachable. He has that hand-eye co-ordination that allows him to gather in the ball in ways that probably aren’t technically correct. He has his own style of doing things and you’re not going to replace that.

“There is an opportunity there for someone to step up. Look at his work off the ball and how he sees the space around him. He never minds laying off a pass to a man in a better position. He looks for that chance to put someone away. That’s an attitude that anyone can have.”


In Limerick's favour is the fact that they have no shortage of candidates for the role. This weekend may come too quickly for Kyle Hayes but if and when he does return to full fitness, it would make all kinds of sense to return him to his spiritual home. In a past life - fadó, fadó in 2018 - he was Young Hurler of the Year and Man of the Match in the All-Ireland final at centre-forward.

Kyle Hayes is one option to replace Lynch. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

A half-forward line of him flanked by Gearóid Hegarty and Tom Morrissey would be a fairly brutalist case of getting the band back together. Hayes has been such a bull-run presence at wing-back, however, that Limerick may want to get him back in situ there sooner rather than later.

"In fairness to John Kiely and Paul Kinnerk, " says TJ Ryan, "when lads have been out over the past few years, they haven't done an awful lot of rejigging. They've looked at what they've had available and if they've had a replacement that can jump in there, they've gone with it.

“You’d have to say that Cathal O’Neill jumping into centre-forward suited him the last day. The freedom of the role in terms of coming out the field and relying on his ability to score from range and distance - that’s a huge plus. He’s certainly a different player to Cian but I don’t think you could match anyone in the country up to Cian Lynch. But he does bring that nice bit of flair, that scoring forward role to the position. You could see them sticking with him.”

Above all else, Limerick are helped by their situation. Had Waterford nicked a draw the last day or kicked on to win after pulling the margin back to a point late on, the scenario would be different here. But two wins from two means they really only have to beat Tipperary tomorrow to be sure of extending the summer. Big and all a loss as Lynch is, Tipp can only dream of having Limerick's problems.

"There's a lot of positivity around Limerick, even with the few injuries," says James Ryan. "John Kiely is in a glorious position in that he doesn't have to hurry anyone back. Everyone was surprised to see Conor Whelan back for Galway the other day. Obviously his injury wasn't as bad as it first seemed but even so, Galway must have felt they didn't have the leeway to give him a few weeks off.

“But Limerick don’t need to rush Cian back or Kyle back. Having those two wins under their belts means they have breathing space. As long as they’re back for the All-Ireland series, that should be plenty of time.”

Maybe so. But the course of a three-in-a-row quest rarely runs smooth and going months at a time without the likes of Lynch, Hayes and Seamus Flanagan is hardly ideal. Limerick are probably eminently capable of overcoming it without too much fuss but we don't know that yet.

Time to find out.

Consistency under Kiely

One of the most striking things about Limerick under John Kiely has been the consistency of selection throughout his five-and-a-bit years in charge. Kiely has been on the sideline for 27 championship games since playing Clare in 2017 and has used 36 players in that time. Nine of those have never started a game and another three have only started once.

Limerick have a solid core of players that Kiely depends on – 14 of them have played in at least 21 of the 27 games. They have perennial subs too – Pat Ryan has come off the bench 16 times under Kiely without a start, while David Reidy one start and 14 appearances as a sub.

Limerick appearances under John Kiely

27 – Nickie Quaid, Cian Lynch (1 as a sub), Seán Finn (1 sub), Tom Morrissey (2 sub), Dan Morrissey (3 sub)

26 – Declan Hannon, Kyle Hayes, Graeme Mulcahy (4 sub), Darragh O'Donovan (7 sub),

25 – Gearóid Hegarty, Aaron Gillane (3 sub)

24 – Diarmaid Byrnes

22 – Will O'Donoghue (6 sub)

21 – Séamus Flanagan (6 sub)