Christy O'Connor: Perfecting the art of timing has been one of Limerick's greatest strengths
ON the afternoon that Limerick defeated Offaly in their final League game in March, which was their only win of the campaign, John Kiely spoke to a group of journalists outside their dressing room in the Gaelic Grounds.
Limerick had lost three of their five games, drawing one. Some of those displays were really below par, especially against Cork when they were well beaten at home. Against Wexford, Limerick only managed a paltry total of 0-11, which was the county’s lowest league total since 2010, the season Limerick were in turmoil during a players strike.
Prior to the Offaly game, Limerick had only averaged 16.5 points per game. It was easy for Limerick to fill their boots against an Offaly side facing a relegation final but Kiely was still bullish about where the group were at.
They had spent the previous weekend on a training camp in Kerry.
“We’ve had a really good last three weeks as a group together,” said Kiely.
“We feel we’re in a great place now to press on for the next four weeks."
Experience had taught Kiely and his players not to panic. Limerick had also failed to win any of their opening three League games in 2021, when they only averaged 0-20 in those games, which were played in May.
Yet during Kiely’s years, especially after the first season in 2017 when they failed to win a Championship match, Limerick have specialised in timing their run so well that they have been at their peak for the big games in the Championship.
Limerick are now unbeaten in the Championship since the 2019 All-Ireland semi-final, but this year was always going to present them with different challenges than the last two seasons.
In 2020 and 2021, Limerick played nine Championship matches. But a return to the round robin format this season has already seen Limerick play five games and, what they hope will be a seven-game campaign.
Although Mikey Casey missed the 2020 and 2021 campaigns with a torn cruciate, Limerick have also had to deal with more injuries this year, with Peter Casey returning from a cruciate and Cian Lynch having missed three (effectively four) games with a serious hamstring strain.
And yet, Limerick have still thrived, winning a brilliant Munster championship, which has now placed them just two games away from completing a historic three-in-a-row.
There were stages of that campaign when Limerick looked to be leaking gas but they’ve had a four-week break to recharge their batteries and refill the tank and they’re heavily fancied now to speed past Galway on Sunday.
Of course they’ll be wary and on guard, especially given the dire record of Munster champions after a break of more than four weeks over the last two decades. On the 15 occasions since 2002 when the Munster champions have advanced directly to an
All-Ireland semi-final with a month’s break, they have won just four times.
Limerick learned that lesson the hard way in 2019 when they were caught cold early on by Kilkenny after winning Munster, annihilating Tipperary in the final. But Kiely spoke last week of how that experience has formed and framed so much of Limerick’s preparations ever since by getting everything exactly right down to the last tiny detail.
Limerick reached such an incredible standard last year when winning their four Championship matches by an aggregate margin of 40 points that it secured them 12 Allstars, which was a new record.
Limerick are now operating at the level that Kilkenny set in their pomp under Brian Cody, when it was always about more than just another win, another title.
That Kilkenny team achieved everything possible but their most important legacy lay not simply in the medals won or the glory gained – it was about the attitude instilled in the group, the standards demanded, the example set by the Kilkenny squad as an entity.
Kilkenny were almost insulted by the perennial questions about their hunger and appetite for more success. When a similar question was put to Limerick captain Declan Hannon before the Munster final, his response carried those same echoes.
“We’ve been asked about the appetite and hunger and if it’s still there and it most certainly is,” said Hannon. “People are giving everything that they have.”
Teams have hit them with everything and Limerick have still consistently found the answers. When they played Tipp in May, Tipp looked like they had outworked Limerick.
In a brilliant piece of analysis on ‘The 42’ after that match, Seán Flynn showed how Tipperary made 92 tackles compared to Limerick’s 80. Yet measuring work-rate and tackle counts are always relative to the number of possessions that the opposition had in the game.
In that context, Flynn was able to show how Tipp players hit a tackle for every 1.7 of Limerick’s possessions, but Limerick’s players tackled for every 1.2 of Tipperary’s possessions.
Tipperary worked as hard as they possibly could and it still only got them to within seven points of Limerick, who underperformed on the day. So can Galway reach that required standard of savagery and work-rate to take Limerick down now?
It’s a huge ask but, similar to Clare, Galway have the physical strength and power to take Limerick on. They have big men around the middle and pace in the full-back line, which is an absolute necessity to have any chance of beating Limerick.
Similar to Clare, Galway have no psychological hang-ups with Limerick, compared to a lot of teams which have buckled under Limerick’s pressure in recent years. Galway ran Limerick close in the 2020 All-Ireland semi-final despite losing Cathal Mannion and Joe Canning to injury during the match. League form aside, they’ve impressively beaten Limerick in their last two League meetings.
Galway will need to improve by about 25 per cent from their win against Cork two weeks ago but they have momentum now at the right time of the season. Limerick haven’t played for a month but this group have made a habit of exploding in Croke Park when the need is greatest. And especially at the business end of the Championship.