There have been few All-Ireland defences like that of the Limerick hurlers. Having put down a perfect season in 2020 – Munster League, Allianz Hurling League, Munster Championship and All-Ireland – they haven't pucked a ball since or even seen each other.
In the raging third wave of the pandemic, all bets were off and uncertainty enveloped the GAA season for a second successive year.
"I suppose none of us leaving realised on the 13th of December what was coming in January," says manager John Kiely.
“That was rather frightening to be honest and, you know, I was just glad that we got to have the championship played off last year and I thought it would have been an absolute tragedy had we not managed to . . . regardless of who was successful in it, from a historical perspective, from a resilience perspective, I thought it was a really important thing that it was played and I think hats off to everybody who made it happen so yeah, it has been very strange.
“Since then, none of us met for months really. There wasn’t a sign of a cup for four months either. It was a very strange thing. It was a super achievement. We are extremely proud of the achievement, extremely proud of our performance levels last year; extremely proud of the players and all the backroom team, what they did.
“It was a different All-Ireland. It was a different time but one we’ll look back on in time and be very proud of our contribution to that championship. It’s hard to describe it really to be honest with you. It was a very surreal couple of months really.”
After the bleakness of last year’s winter championship, played out in sweeping torrents of rain and the darkness of empty stadiums, this year – now finally up and running – promises more conventional, more comforting environments for the intercounty hurling season.
Not alone has he delivered two All-Irelands in the same generation but he has taken the county to the verge of an historic provincial three-in-a-row, another record unequalled since the 1930s and the supremacy of Mackey’s team.
It’s one thing for Kiely to be proud of the past but he’s not going to start getting proud of some indeterminate future.
“I’ll be straight with you, I haven’t given it one single solitary moment’s consideration. Like, you just don’t get very much opportunity to reflect. While we had no training or matches or meetings or any get-togethers of any description over the past three or four months, you might say that that would give you opportunity to reflect on what had been achieved.
“But when you’re in my job by day, trying to manage a school and you’re told on January 6th that the school is going back to online learning again, those opportunities to reflect are zero after that because you’re just literally fire-fighting to keep in touch with your teachers, your support staff, your students, your parents.”
He brings to the table invaluable experience from two years ago when he last led a team in defence of an All-Ireland. That ended in the semi-final, possibly a by-product of the crushing win over Tipperary in the Munster final and possible the sense of wellbeing that they took to Croke Park only to find in the early exchanges that Kilkenny had come to compete.
Despite that and the inaccuracies in their play that day, Limerick were an officiating error away from taking Kilkenny to extra time. It was a hard lesson but Kiely believes that the inconsistency earlier that season that saw them lose two matches in Munster ultimately told.
“That experience of having been there, you do learn lessons from it like you do from all seasons, really. You will make mistakes. As a player or manager you’re going to make mistakes. You might turn around and say, ‘I should have maybe changed my approach to this or that’.
“You can over-think things too. It’s actually a great skill to be able to take each year as it comes on its own merits. We don’t know from week to week what players are going to get injured. Will we have the same players available to us as we did last year at the end of the year? We may not.”
He references the distractions that are part and parcel of being champions.
“This year is different to any other year in that when we finished in December, we didn’t scarcely meet each other for four months after. Whereas previous winners would have all sorts of functions, travel, team holidays, All-Star trips, Super 11s, events with their clubs, colleges, work places, medal presentations. All those distractions that are out there for winners.
“None of that was there this year. When it was over, it was over. That was it. Finito.
“This year is different to any other previous winning experience. For our lads, there’s good and bad in that. For example, I haven’t been able to have the cup in my home place.
“That’s a loss. You couldn’t turn that into a gain. Am I sorry that I didn’t have to traipse around the country with it to 2,000 different primary schools and secondary schools and all the rest that goes with it? That’s hard. That’s tiring and exhausting. And we didn’t have to go through that. In its own right, that’s a loss as well because those organisations benefit greatly from those experiences and those visits but it does take a lot out of you.
“It’s hard to know what way it will play out, will it all be positive or will there be negatives. I think it’s going to be a mix.”