Limerick take gold in main event to build on last year’s success
Convincing away win over league holders Kilkenny a good sign for All-Ireland champions
Kilkenny manager Brian Cody reacts during the defeat to Limerick at Nowlan Park. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Here was indisputably an event. The All-Ireland champions against the league holders on a fine, spring afternoon in Kilkenny attracted 11,283 to Nowlan Park.
Limerick began their memorable 2018 by getting promoted back to the top division of the Allianz Hurling League and part of the motivation was occasions like this. They have started this year in fine style and yesterday’s authoritative win kept them top of Division 1A with maximum points.
More important was who they were beating. Limerick hadn’t won here since 1997. In the meantime Kilkenny have won 11 All-Irelands and become hurling’s gold standard. Now in transition, a gilded generation largely in retirement, and short a number of top players, the black-and-amber jerseys still constitute an assay office for those who want to emulate Brian Cody’s teams’ achievement.
Limerick came out of Nowlan Park hallmarked as genuine. No reigning All-Ireland champions have won at the venue in the following season’s league since Galway 32 years ago.
A late, first-half scoring blast transformed the wind advantage that Kilkenny would have in the second half from potentially a key asset into an irrelevance.
The scoring plaudits went to Aaron Gillane, currently in superb form between county and Fitzgibbon Cup with Mary Immaculate College, who shot nine points, three from play. But Na Piarsaigh duo Shane Dowling and Conor Boylan got the goals whereas the defence was both a launchpad and a bulwark, keeping out any hint of the goals with which Kilkenny have frequently turned matches on their head.
Their manager Brian Cody was asked if the lack of goal threat a concern.
“We would prefer to have had a few alright yeah and that’s obviously something we would like to see improved but overall at the end of the day, I look back on the game, we probably missed a fair few chances, simple scoring opportunities that we didn’t take and we set a very, very good tone from the start.
“I’m not trying to make it sound better for ourselves than it is – I could go away thinking, ‘this is crazy, this is shocking’ but it’s not. It’s February. We’re playing the best team in the country. There’s plenty to learn from it.”
His counterpart John Kiely can now contemplate almost certain qualification for the quarter-finals. He said he wasn’t going to give over the rest of the regulation matches to heedless experimentation.
“We’ll be true to what we’ve been doing. Changes will come but they will be subtle because we have to give every fella a fair chance to fit into the system. Making too many changes wouldn’t reflect that. We’ll see how things are going.
“Obviously we’ll lose Paddy O’Loughlin and Aaron Gillane for a couple of weeks. They have Fitzgibbon Cup final next weekend. It will give others lads an opportunity and I’m sure they will be looking forward to it. “All credit goes to the players. A lot of them went two or three months without hurls in their hands, which was nice for them.
“They’re young of course so the freshness is there. If it wasn’t there after one season it would be a concern. They’re working hard and enjoying their hurling. It’s early doors – February 17th.”
They move on next week to face Cork – whose manager John Meyler was an interested spectator in Nowlan Park – with whom they had two epic championship tussles last summer. Kilkenny renew their signature rivalry with Tipperary in Thurles.
Already the top division has an unusual look. Limerick are on six points, Wexford behind on four and all four other counties on two.
Wexford’s status was sealed late in the day with a one-point victory over 14-man Tipperary in Wexford. Noel McGrath had been sent off for a second yellow card in the 31st minute, giving Liam Sheedy’s team a whole half to negotiate while a man short. They went eight up in the 43rd minute and nearly made it but Aidan Nolan’s late winner in injury-time sent David Fitzgerald’s men into second place.
“We deserved to win,” said the manager. “I honestly think we deserved it. When you are playing against such a strong gale in the first half, even to hold it to four points was massive. I think we were even a bit unlucky; I honestly thought their goal was totally, totally our mistakes. It should have been dealt with twice, and apart from that I don’t think Éanna [Martin, goalkeeper] had a shot to deal with.
“Winning games like this at Wexford Park is very important for us. We had a very big crowd today and a lot of young people there. The more big games we win the better and confidence-wise for our lads.
“We’ll be keeping an eye on what’s going to happen later in the year but for Wexford, we want to get into the play-offs. Financially for every county board it’s very important to get to the play-offs. Like, it helps. If you get a budget for a team to work with and you get them to a quarter-final that might extend your budget by 20 or 30 grand. That’s a big chunk of change if you can do it.”
Despite the fraught circumstances Tipp manager Liam Sheedy didn’t sound too traumatised.
“It is the middle of February. In terms of the project and where we are at overall, I am very happy with the effort and energy that they are bringing to the pitch. There was good spirit and we came up a point short. Overall, I thought it was a good solid performance.”