Limerick’s lovely hurling rooted in behind the scenes spadework

If youth defined the championship victory, then maturity is hallmark of their attitude now

Limerick manager John Kiely is quick to acknowledge the smoothness with which his squad has adjusted to the routine of week-in-week-out hurling. Óisín Keniry/Inpho

Limerick manager John Kiely is quick to acknowledge the smoothness with which his squad has adjusted to the routine of week-in-week-out hurling. Óisín Keniry/Inpho

 

Enter, stage right. For many years, there was a vague assumption if Limerick could somehow win a hurling All-Ireland, then city and county would spend the next decade celebrating it. It turned out that the opposite was true.

The Limerick hurlers responded to lifting the Liam MacCarthy in immaculate fashion. It was as if the gap from their previous title in 1973 was just a blip: a wrong righted. The squad and county celebrated, the players reported for duty at the beginning of the year and promptly won the league, losing only to Cork along the way. Perhaps the most frightening demonstration of the shift of power towards the Shannon came on February 17th when they posted 2-18 to 0-15 against Kilkenny in Nowlan Park.

For a hurling county whose flamboyant inconsistency had become a thing of infamy, it was as if they had suddenly cracked the code. On Sunday, they make their championship debut in the Gaelic Grounds against a Cork side that suddenly finds itself on the back foot. All eyes will be on Limerick. At the Munster championship launch recently, John Kiely was quick to acknowledge the smoothness with which his squad settled back into the demands and routine of week-in-week-out hurling.

“You could see for yourself by the quality of their performances that they were improving as we went along. We used a wide spread of players in the course of the league. The lads know themselves that the level of competition for their place is very difficult. They can’t afford to take their eye off the ball because if they do they will be sitting down. It was a bit of an unknown quantity how they would come back because it was a first time for us and you never know how the lads will handle it but in fairness they have been phenomenal, really. They have handled the situation very maturely. It seems like a long, long time ago. It seems like an eternity now. It is consigned to our memory now. It is a case of looking forward now to the next challenge and we won’t have too long to wait.”

Limerick won the league final on March 31st. On April 8th, the county board signed a 10-year partnership with Limerick Institute of Technology, formalising the association between the two entities. Scholarship schemes, internships, use of the campus by the senior squad, the branding of the LIT Gaelic Grounds. It is designed to harness the momentum that the 2018 success has brought.

“That to me suggests they intend sustaining what they have put in place. They are really moving on into managing player’s lives,” says Séamus Plunkett, the former Laois manager. The Portlaoise man was, like many in the hurling community, baffled that such a strong hurling county which consistently turned out first rank players and high calibre teams suffered from such long All-Ireland droughts. For Plunkett, last summer’s renaissance can be traced to the decision over a decade ago when those guiding Limerick hurling made a conscious decision to try and shape their future, implementing the Lifting the Treaty plan, radically changing the coaching structure of Gaelic games within the county.

Jerry Wallace was the inaugural director and in 2015, Anthony Daly was recruited as the Limerick academy hurling coach. In 2012, Aaron Gillane and Cian Lynch were among the players on the team that won an All-Ireland Under-16 title. The under-20 titles of 2015 and 2017 were obvious signals Limerick had a promising generation coming through. But the memories of how the 2000-2002 All-Ireland winning under-21 sides had fallen apart and the weight of oppressive history left this generation with a lot to prove. That came together last summer.

“Once you saw the way they were going to play, it was going to take them a long way,” says Plunkett.

“A huge number of hungry successful and big players came in at the one time. And it was easier to coach a new way of hurling. What was allied to that was an innovative management team coming in at one time. You had the likes of Paul Kinnerk, Alan Cunningham, Joe O’Connor who had won an All-Ireland with Clare coming in. They had the experience of getting a game plan suited to a group of players and being able to implement it.

“So the confluence of those things was the key factor in driving Limerick. And overseeing it all is John Kiely who seems to have a great feel for the environment that a team should be in to perform. And bear in mind those players were successful at under age so they had that ambition and confidence. All the right parts were in place. But I will flip that on its head and say, look, they didn’t win Munster last year. And Cork had them beaten but for an exceptional save by the goalkeeper. So this year will be very interesting.”

Limerick’s Cian Lynch celebrates scoring a goal with Aaron Gillane on the way to lifting the MacCarthy Cup last summer in Croke Park. File photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Limerick’s Cian Lynch celebrates scoring a goal with Aaron Gillane on the way to lifting the MacCarthy Cup last summer in Croke Park. File photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Limerick generated such energy last summer that the anticipation of their championship appearance has been intense. Their pattern of play – retaining possession, pick-passing their way forward and creating space through positional rotating and dropping their half-forward line deep – has doubtlessly been closely examined by opposition teams in previous months.

A key task for Kiely’s management team between the league and championship was to devise and enhance another attacking approach which their opponents can’t have planned for. Kinnerk has spoken of his preference for training programmes which simulate game situations rather than focusing on straightforward skills drills, designed to place emphasis on what Limerick want to do with the ball and what other teams will try to do against Limerick: their approach against Cork will be closely scrutinised.

Ever since Limerick reached the All-Ireland final, Kiely has been brilliant at warding off the hype that might have destroyed the team’s preparation and, after the pyrotechnics of their one-point victory over Galway, at helping the players and public to measure the celebration. If youth was the governing trait of their championship win, then maturity has been the hallmark of their attitude since September.

The expectation of playing in front of a still euphoric home support and the pressure of playing as defending champions are the other burdens that the team did not face last year, when they were permitted to advance through Munster without winning the province before catching fire in Croke Park.

This summer will allow them no such luxury. When Limerick last defended their All-Ireland, in 1974, they waltzed through Munster and on to the All-Ireland final, where they were hauled down on a 3-19 to 1-13 score line by those old reliables, Kilkenny. This year, they hope to go one step further.

That journey starts Sunday.

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