Short, sharp shock of hurling leagues taking teams to strange places

All-Ireland and league champions Limerick looking for first win against great rivals Cork

This year’s Allianz Hurling League enters its penultimate series this weekend. Certain themes have emerged: the controversy over new rules and the massive totals being put up by free takers. Last week TJ Reid scored 1-18 for Kilkenny against Wexford, 0-15 from frees.

As former Clare All-Ireland medallist and pundit James O’Connor said on Thursday: “I probably went through a year not scoring 1-18 in a season!”

Then there have been injuries. In the same match, Wexford speedster David Dunne lasted four minutes after coming on before his hamstring failed to survive the first turbo charge. The cut corners of the hurling counties' preference for more matches and less training has probably come at a cost.

This has not been a normal league, as All Star wing back Kyle Hayes, whose county Limerick have won the last two titles, said at the launch of RTÉ's championship coverage.

“I suppose it’s definitely different to most other years where you could have two to three months of a pre-season before you’d get into the league. And that would definitely be the main focus as of then because your championship is four or five months down the line.

“It’s definitely a great warm-up series for a championship. Everyone knows the best practice you can get is through games and that’s something you can never beat so I’m definitely not complaining that way but I suppose it is a different bit of a feeling all right, like. It’s kind of a strange set-up all right.”

It’s certainly taken Limerick to strange places. After the triumph of an unbeaten year in 2020 with all of its attendant prizes, to date they have become the first All-Ireland champions since Wexford in 1997 to fail to win their first three league fixtures.

This Saturday evening in the Gaelic Grounds they must come to grips with an old conundrum: playing opponents, shortly before they meet in championship.

“It’s only a month, four weeks now until the first round,” says Hayes, who is suspended for this weekend’s match. “It isn’t ideal, I suppose, in a sense but like we’ll be going out, definitely, on Saturday evening to get a win and expecting to get a good performance against an in-form Cork team. That’s definitely important too.”

Neither is that a cliche. Matches between the counties have been exceptionally tight since Limerick began their era of dominance three years ago. In 2018 they drew the Munster round-robin match in Cork and later in the All-Ireland semi-final, it took extra-time before Limerick won.

The following season, Cork made a successful raid on the Gaelic Grounds, which was blithely and generally overlooked as a factor when the counties met again in the Munster championship, only for Cork to repeat the dose. A year ago in the unknowing serenity of pre-pandemic times, Limerick won the league fixture.

Cork’s relationship with the league has been not been generally characterised by commitment in the past couple of decades – a fact referred to by county chief executive Kevin O’Donovan in last year’s annual report.

It is all of 23 years since they last won the title under Jimmy Barry-Murphy. Seán McGrath played on that team and was a selector with the county when they reached league finals in 2012 and ’15, also with JBM as manager.

He is a firm believer in the therapeutic qualities of a good league campaign and believes that the 1998 win not only preceded the All-Ireland win of 1999 but led the way.

“Cork played in Division Two in 1997 after a very disappointing campaign in ’96. We actually played London and Roscommon in the league, which wasn’t exactly great preparation for playing Clare in Limerick in the championship.

“Jimmy approached the 1998 league with real ambition and intent. Every single game he wanted to win and wanted a performance. We won the final against Waterford and while it wasn’t unbelievable it was all about winning it and the championship wasn’t that bad.”

He provides this elaboration because the outline story is of a 10-point defeat by Clare.

“We beat Limerick and hadn’t at that stage won a championship match for six years against anyone apart from once, against Kerry. Jimmy was all about increments: build, build, build. He saw 1997 as a bit of progression and a ’98 was a trophy on the mantelpiece. Even looking back on the Clare game, we were still in the contest going into the last 10 minutes but Clare pulled away.

“We went into 1999 seeing the previous year as progress. We had given Clare a game and they probably should have won the All-Ireland in ’98.”

This time around, Cork are doing well. There are new players and manager Kieran Kingston has brought in Dónal O'Grady to help sort out a better structure for a team generally well supplied with forwards but not defenders. So far the changed emphasis has seen not so much a tightening of the rearguard but an increased productivity.

“I’m delighted that Cork are unbeaten in the league,” he says. “It’s been a reasonably good performance as well. I would hope that Kieran has gone out to win every game. Goals are coming. They’re going for the jugular.

“If you talk to people around the country there’s a theory that Cork are one team that can trouble Limerick with a bit of dash, a bit of pace and an excellent attack. I think Cork have to approach this to win it. There’s no room for mind games.

“Fast-forwarding to July 3rd, it’s huge for Cork to be able to say, ‘we beat these guys four weeks ago on their home turf’.

“With confidence, Cork can always do well but go on into the championship and have they got the consistency to go all the way? I’m not so sure but you build these things one game at a time. Saturday could tell a lot about the summer.”

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