Hurling & Camogie

Christy O’Connor: Cork stopped ‘drive for five’ but Limerick’s journey is far from finished

The greatness of John Kiely’s side is undeniable despite defeat to the Rebels in the All-Ireland SHC semi-final

Cork's Alan Connolly and Limerick's Seán Finn in action during the GAA All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final between Cork and Galway on 07-07-2024 at Croke Park Dublin. Pic Philip Walsh
Cork's Alan Connolly and Limerick's Seán Finn in action during the GAA All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final . Pic Philip Walsh

At the end of the Cork-Limerick match last Sunday, as the Cork players celebrated together with ‘The Frank and Walters’ classic tune ‘After All’ booming out around Croke Park, the Limerick players were gathered in separate groups around the pitch, gazing blankly at a completely unfamiliar setting, scenes that they were normally part of, but suddenly weren’t.

Players hugged each other. Softly spoken words were exchanged. For what appeared like an age, the Limerick players didn’t seem to know what to do next. Most of the Cork players had already entered the dressing room when the Limerick players and management finally moved together in unison, gathering in a group close to the Hogan Stand, before applauding their supporters still in the ground.

The players still looked almost concussed in the moment but there was bound to be a concussive element to whenever Limerick’s incredible winning run was halted. It had been five years since Limerick lost a knockout championship match. They had been unbeaten in Croke Park in their previous eight games.

The shock factor was all the greater again when there was such history at stake. The five-in-a-row had never been achieved before in hurling but Limerick’s quest was all the more challenging again considering the route they had to take to get there.

When Kilkenny lost the 2010 All-Ireland final to Tipperary, it was their 22nd game in five seasons. Last Sunday’s was Limerick’s 29th game. But there was a difference. Kilkenny were able to cruise through Leinster back then, whereas every game Limerick played in the bear-pit in Munster was like an All-Ireland final for the opposition.

Sunday was just one bridge too far against an excellent Cork team. Key moments defined the game, and Limerick’s season, not the hype around the five-in-a-row. “We felt light about all that all year,” said John Kiely afterwards.

Limerick manager John Kiely holding Liam MacCarthy Cup in 2023
Limerick manager John Kiely celebrates with the Liam MacCarthy Cup after winning it for the fourth consecutive time in 2023. PICTURE: SEAMUS LOUGHRAN (Seamus Loughran)

That was always going to be a challenge but everything Limerick have built, everything they stand for is controlled and deliberate, designed to protect against chaos and disruption. They are deaf to outside noise but the chase for five-in-a-row was still always bound to cause a din and racket that Limerick had to muffle.

The long drum roll started as far back as the outset of last autumn. “Every single person I meet from Limerick,” said Gearóid Hegarty in October “is already starting to talk about the five-in-a-row.”

Limerick tried to keep everything as it is but this year was bound to be different. How could it not be? Only two hurling teams had ever been in that position before, neither of whom managed to rhyme history with immortality. As well as Kilkenny losing to Tipp in the 2010 final, Cork crashed out in their first game in Munster in 1945.

Hype and expectation was amplified with so much is at stake but Limerick eventually came up short against a team that were finally able to match them. Limerick were marginally off in some key areas last Sunday, but they still got off 50 shots. Anytime they do, they normally win. It was just that Cork got off 49 shots. Cork’s conversion rate was just one per cent better than Limerick’s. Fine margins. Huge gains.

On two different stages of the second half, Cork led by seven points – and Limerick still reeled in the deficit. If Shane O’Brien’s late chance had gone inside the post to reduce the margin to one, the smart money would have been on Limerick to at least get level. If they had, they’d have had all the momentum by then to drive on and win the game.

Cork's Alan Connolly and Limerick's Dan Morrissey battle it out in yesterday's All-Ireland semi-final
Cork's Alan Connolly and Limerick's Dan Morrissey battle it out in yesterday's All-Ireland semi-final

Not doing so in no way reduces or dilutes this team’s legacy as one of the greatest sides in hurling history. The Kilkenny four-in-a-row team between 2006 and 2009 were deemed to be the greatest ever, so great that everyone doubted if we would ever see their like again, especially in our lifetime.

And then, almost out of nowhere, that Kilkenny side had a legitimate challenger to their status, an opponent that had more than earned the right to stand as their peers, with the potential to possibly even stride past that side of immortals.

In sport, evolution always contains a degree of imitation and, in so many ways, this Limerick team are a mirror image of Brian Cody’s elite performers; power; skill execution under the most unimaginable pressure; a ferocious appetite for work; a sustained ferocity. And an incredible culture

There have always been innovators but Limerick have dared to be different, attacking orthodoxy from all sides, expressing innovation in such a unique way that it enabled Kiely and his squad to create a whole New Order

Where does Limerick’s greatest team now sit in the pantheon? Any attempt to rank greatness and status in a descending manner is always subjective and highly contentious.

Great teams leave a huge imprint but the legacies of the greatest teams is how they fundamentally change the game. And this Limerick team emphatically has.

They challenged their rivals and the chasing pack to be radical in their thinking. Yet irrespective of the system Limerick play or the systems they play against, any system is worthless unless it has the brilliant players to carry it out.

In an increasingly professional culture and climate, with more challengers and realistic contenders, with a much more demanding programme of matches than in the past, with less time for recovery than ever before, Limerick continued to find a way.

They were finally stopped last Sunday but the empirical evidence has already enriched their place in the pantheon.

Similar to all the great teams in the past, Limerick won’t see one history-defining defeat as a defining full stop to this incredible story.

After Kilkenny lost the five-in-a-row in 2010, they returned to win four of the next five All-Irelands. When Kerry’s bid to win five-in-a-row was halted by Offaly in 1982, possibly that team’s greatest legacy was returning to win three-in-a-row between 1984-’86.

The relentless march has stopped for now but there is no reason to believe that this is the end of Limerick’s glorious era.