Before this year, the usual story for teams heading into an All-Ireland semi-final was that they would arrive in Croke Park still searching for something. There were plenty of years when Kilkenny got to this point having only played two games in the championship and even if a Cork or Tipperary had come through the hard side of the draw in Munster, that was still only three games in three months.
The upshot was that you landed in Croke Park still not 100 per cent sure of where your team stood. Questions loomed in the back of your mind. What is our best team? Are we battle hardened? Have we been tested?
You do all you can, obviously. Internal training games, group gym sessions, deep-thinking analysis meetings. You go on a few training weekends where you sometimes find yourself in a bathrobe and slippers in some fancy-dan hotel getting a lovely massage after a hard training weekend – and all of a sudden you’re in a strange mental place. You’re fresh as a daisy but still a little unsure.
With Kilkenny that often slipped into my mind. We’d have a training game on a Sunday morning and there might have been a brilliant qualifier the night before between Tipperary and Galway, say. I’d watch it and get paranoid at the thought of where exactly we were. Have we played any games at that level? Have we had to go to that place that they went to? How do we know that it’s going to be there when we need it?
That's what the internal matches at Nowlan Park were for. People might have this idea that it was all just Brian Cody insisting we beat lumps out of each other and us going along with it because we were willing psychos, but there was always a purpose to it. Think about it – we would be arriving at an All-Ireland semi-final in mid-August having played just two matches since April. That was never going to prepare us properly for what was coming down the tracks.
Fast and physical
We needed games that were hard and fast and physical. We were never going to be able to recreate the intensity of an All-Ireland semi-final but what we could do was get pissed off at each other and get our blood up that way. That’s why Brian had no problem swallowing the whistle, leaving grudges and scores to be levelled and settled for that given day.
Often balls would be pucked out from one end and down on top of two players and when your eyes would arrive at where the ball was landing, the pair of lads would be rolling around the ground wrestling. Play would go on around them and eventually the lads would get tired, jump back to their feet and go hunt the ball with the same aggression.
We knew what we could and couldn’t do when we got to Croke Park – that wasn’t the point. The point was that lads were learning to play with adrenaline pumping, making calm decisions even though five seconds earlier they might have been in a headlock on the ground. Those sessions were crucial because it gave us the confidence that we had gone and found out stuff about ourselves. It meant we were at the pitch of championship tempo.
I obviously wasn’t privy to the Kilkenny training schedule this year but I can guarantee that there were far, far fewer of those savage internal games in Nowlan Park this summer. The new format meant that (a) there wasn’t time for them and (b) there wasn’t the same need for them. Kilkenny played seven games in 10 weeks, including one draw and three games that were decided by the puck of a ball. They found out all the needed to know about themselves as the championship went along.
That’s the interesting thing about the semi-finals this year. Everybody’s in the same boat. Cork have played five games, Galway, Clare and Limerick have all played six. Nobody is going into this weekend trying to iron out any kinks. Everyone knows who they are – and everyone knows who they’re up against.
Tick all the boxes
When I watch this Limerick team, they stand out as a team who have most, if not all, the answers they’re looking for. They tick all the boxes. To analyse teams, I like to look at what they have going for them in five different categories – skill-sets, physicality, athleticism, ratio of performances between the different lines on the field, and balance between their own systems and tactics and what they apply to their opposition.
Go through the Limerick team and on each count; they're heading in the right direction. They have all the skills of the game in players like Aaron Gillane and Graeme Mulcahy. When it comes to physicality, the likes of Diarmuid Byrnes, Richie English and Declan Hannon are leading the way. For athleticism, the two Morrisseys and Cian Lynch cover every blade of grass.
Do they have a balance between backs, midfielders and forwards playing well? Absolutely they do. If you sat down this morning to pick out which of their players are in line for an All Star nomination, you'd pick at least four, possibly five and maybe even all six of their defenders; you'd say Lynch was a definite in midfield; and you'd say Séamus Flanagan, Tom Morrissey, Gillane and Mulcahy are all on their way to nominations in the forward line. So that balance is there, no doubt about it.
As for the final category, their manager John Kiely said last week that 90 per cent of their time and energy is focused on Limerick and 10 per cent on Cork. You can tell that looking at them. Limerick play their own game, play to their own strengths.
Watch them on their own puck-out. They have three basic strategies: (1) short to defenders; (2) Kyle Hayes and Gearóid Hegarty are long, high-ball options; (3) a bunch formation by the forwards in the middle of the park with lads breaking off in different directions to run into space on the wings. It's not overly complicated and it doesn't need to be. They know what they're good at and they do it well.
Limerick are a perfect example of a team that has found itself as the summer has gone on, benefitting from the new format in a way that just wasn’t possible before. Compare this team to the 2013 side who got to Croke Park having won a Munster final five weeks previously. That team arrived to play Clare on a wave of emotion, with the backing of a massive crowd roaring them on to the pitch.
That game was on August 18th. Their league campaign that year ended with a Division 1B final defeat to Dublin on April 6th. Their Munster campaign consisted of a semi-final against Tipp and a final against Cork. When you add it all up, they went into an All-Ireland semi-final having played two games in 19 weeks.
I’d have no doubt they went into that game thinking they were in a good place. And yet, 20 minutes into the game, they were being run ragged by Clare. Declan Hannon was having a meltdown on the frees, their defence was all over the place, pulled out of shape by a Clare team that had come through the qualifiers and was clicking into gear.
At one stage early on in that game, Pat Donnellan sauntered up the field without being picked up, collected a short free from Colin Ryan and slotted it over the bar from 40 yards. I remember it vividly because I was just so stunned at how he could get away so easily in the first half of an All-Ireland semi-final. He ran 60 yards without anybody checking him. He actually ran past two Limerick players without them copping it. Clare blitzed them and all the hype and all the emotion drained away.
That won’t happen on Sunday. I just can’t see it. This time around, they’ve had six games in 16 weeks since their last game in the league. They’ve played more games in a tighter space of time and they’ve a far better idea now of what they’re about.
Look at what they've learned. They started the Munster Championship with Séamus Hickey as their full back. Now they have Mike Casey in at number three. Maybe in a different year, they'd have got through a Munster semi-final with Hickey there, stood by him for a Munster final because he's entitled to one bad game given his record, possibly dominated out the field and stopped the supply to the full-forward line in that game and could now be going into a semi-final thinking they were sorted in that position. Next thing you know, Séamus Harnedy catches two balls in the opening 15 minutes and Cork have a couple of goals.
That’s just the most obvious change they’ve made along the way. But they’ve learned so much more. They know that their half-back line is the best line on the field and so they’ve made it their platform and built the rest of their team around it. And they know the Morrissey brothers are the real deal, go-to guys when they need them. They know they can depend on them. Did they know that at the start of May?
Other things, too. They have developed probably the best corner back defending tandem in the championship. They know now that Cian Lynch is one of the best midfielders in the country and that, in his position, he is the engine driving this team. Tactically, they know that they have a great ability to create space in front of their full-forward line and that they can get scores by directly going through that route.
They have a panel and a bench that they can call and contribute to the team. An intangible thing but a vital thing they’ve learned is that their younger guys have a belief about them – see their response to Richie Hogan’s goal against Kilkenny. Five of the last six scores in the quarter-final were Limerick’s.
They have learned so much about themselves, arguably the most of any of the four teams left. I fancy them to beat Cork on Sunday as a result. I wouldn’t be putting my mortgage on it by any means because Cork’s forwards are capable of running up such high scores. But taking everything into account, I just think Limerick have an edge in terms of their defence being better than Cork’s and their system working for them that bit better.
Limerick have come to Croke Park before thinking everything was hunky dory only to get the shock of their lives far too late to be able to do anything about it. Whatever the result on Sunday, I can’t see that being the way it pans out this time.