Seán Moran: Limerick rediscover champion form to leave Cork with daunting test

John Kiely’s men looked ragged for opening weeks this year but have recovered strongly

Limerick’s Richie English and  Westmeath’s Niall Mitchell   contest a high ball. Photograph: Brian Reilly-Troy/Inpho

Limerick’s Richie English and Westmeath’s Niall Mitchell contest a high ball. Photograph: Brian Reilly-Troy/Inpho

 

For an abbreviated calendar, the league still managed to throw up some dramatic reversals of fortune. Thirty-seven days ago the competition started with a number of noteworthy results.

Antrim deservedly beat a Clare team battling the noise of administrative controversies back home, and holders Limerick struggled to shake off the close-season torpor – and Tipp – but fished a draw out of the tank.

Once the All-Ireland champions got their campaign back on track, it would be noted that unlike Galway or Waterford, both of whom avenged last year’s championship defeats, only Tipperary hadn’t obtained full satisfaction.

By the end of it all, Limerick were conclusively back and had given Cork a going-over as a foreboding for the counties’ Munster semi-final, which is only weeks away.

John Kiely’s men were by a distance the best of 2020. Waterford may have underperformed in the All-Ireland final but that simply turned a beating into a rout. The champions looked ragged for the opening weeks this year and failed to win any of the first three matches.

Unabated power

They tried out a couple of younger hurlers to positive notices and eventually rediscovered their form.

Newcomers Colin Coughlan, another towering wing-back in the Kyle Hayes mode, and Cathal O’Neill, who also got some game time – and scores – in the campaign are both Leaving Cert students with what look like assured futures, whether or not they opt for the under-20 route this summer.

The champions’ power in the air and strength in the collisions are unabated and that goes for the panel. In a recent challenge match against Clare – between under-strength teams – there were 20 aerial contests and Limerick won 20 of them.

Antrim finished the campaign as strongly as they began it and with an unbeaten home record to conclude a great return season in the division, finishing fourth and ahead of Dublin, who they play shortly in the Leinster championship.

Although they decisively beat Darren Gleeson’s team in Parnell Park, Dublin had a modest league, proving competitive against Kilkenny, Clare and Wexford but not managing to seal the deal in any of the matches. Antrim will feel buoyant about this even with the recent result.

Kilkenny were steady and welcomed back Adrian Mullen, who missed 2020 with a cruciate injury and in Ennis looked as if he was beginning to get back his previous form. It will be needed. The team still depends too much on TJ Reid and there is little consistency in the back-up.

They also conceded too much for comfort against Laois and Antrim but had a satisfying outing when giving big provincial rivals Wexford a hammering in Nowlan Park. The counties’ Leinster semi-final is likely to be fiercely contested nonetheless.

Clare’s was probably the biggest transformation. After the shock of the opening-day defeat in Belfast, they threw away a big lead against Wexford and appeared to be stranded in the doldrums.

Three wins on the bounce didn’t catch Kilkenny at the top of Division 1B but showed a side coming into form.

Tony Kelly’s return from injury to record a 20-point haul in Parnell Park was complemented by some goal-scoring against Kilkenny. Although David McInerney was one of the players to pick up injury, 31 minutes into a promising comeback, manager Brian Lohan has recast his half-back line and the team has a solid look at the back and is lively up front.

Their first round against Waterford suddenly looks more of toss-up than it did when the draw was made and certainly after the first couple of league fixtures.

Liam Cahill’s team are another to have rewritten their prospects. On the first weekend they were well beaten by Cork in a decent match, which was taken as confirmation of the impact of Tadhg de Búrca’s loss.

Gaining altitude

By the end of the schedule, Cahill was talking positively about having used 35 players – by coincidence, opponents Clare have given chances to same number – and although at the time of writing there has been no feedback about the injuries to Shane Fives, Austin Gleeson and Conor Prunty, chances are that one of them will be missing.

It makes the deepening of the panel all the more important. It was clear on Sunday that the replacements were all adept at the flying-squad, running game that overwhelmed Tipperary in the second half. Dessie Hutchinson is still gaining altitude and Shane Bennett’s return to the county has added something to the forwards this year as some sort of counterbalance to de Búrca’s loss.

Liam Sheedy explained Tipp’s lethargy as the outcome of their training block scheduling but the lack of pace has to be a concern on the very fast track of the present pitches.

They are trialling a more secure tactical arrangement, dropping back one of the half-backs and a centre-fielder to cover – presumably to try and thwart Limerick if they come across them this championship but they’ve a lot of ground to cover to bridge the sort of gap that has separated them from their rivals in the past two championship meetings.

On their day they can beat nearly anyone else but will have their hands full when they enter Munster cold to take on the winners of Clare-Waterford.

Cork had started well when they went unbeaten against Waterford and Tipperary but some of the restructuring was called into question by the final two defeats. There was no desire to show their hand against Limerick but Galway also disposed of them easily enough once they tightened things in the second half.

As former Galway manager Micheál Donoghue said on the weekend’s Sunday Game, they can’t afford to be giving half forward lines the sort of space that Limerick and Galway were afforded in the past two weeks.

Kieran Kingston is clearly keeping something up his sleeve but it’s going to need to be exceptionally surprising – and potent.

Anyway, as Liam Cahill said on Sunday: “The ball is starting to fly. It’s summer hurling again – it’s great to have it back.”

smoran@irishtimes.com

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