Limerick and Kilkenny. Just like that. The same teams as last year’s All-Ireland final. The same pairing as the League final back in April. Was the narrative of this year’s Championship that predictable and linear?
No Championship follows a clear and predictable pathway, even if Limerick are as dominant now as Kilkenny were in their pomp under Brian Cody. Back then, Kilkenny were almost guaranteed to be in the All-Ireland final at the outset of every year between 2007 and 2012, as they were during each of those six seasons.
For a couple of those years, especially 2010 and 2011, Tipperary were also expected at the outset of those seasons to join Kilkenny there, which they did, even if Tipp lost the first round in Munster to Cork in 2010.
There was less jeopardy around Kilkenny’s dominance back then because there were less games to try and catch them out, especially when they kept winning. The only year they didn’t win the All-Ireland between 2011 and 2015 was 2013, when they played more games than usual, with Dublin beating them in a Leinster semi-final replay, which meant Kilkenny had to negotiate their way past Tipperary, Waterford and Cork to even reach an All-Ireland semi-final. In Kilkenny’s sixth match, Cork knocked them out in an All-Ireland quarter-final.
There are far more matches now in the round robin, which magnifies Limerick’s brilliance even more. Despite every match they play effectively almost being an All-Ireland final for the opposition, Limerick have kept on going and kept on winning.
They started the Championship as the overwhelming favourites to win the All-Ireland. Kilkenny began the championship as second favourites with many of the bookies. Limerick are still the favourites to win on Sunday week in a final that wouldn’t have been too hard to predict back in April. And yet, it could have all been so different.
There are always a multitude of twists and turns in any given Championship but the critical turning point in the season took place in one of the most low-profiled matches. Not only was that game not on TV, but it was the least attractive match behind four other massive games on the same day in late May.
Tipperary-Waterford took its place at the end of the queue that day behind Cork-Limerick, Kilkenny-Wexford, Dublin-Galway and Antrim-Westmeath. Cork and Limerick were fighting to get into the top three in Munster and stay alive in the championship. Dublin had an opportunity to reach the Leinster final, while Galway also needed to take care of business to make sure they got there.
Wexford were fighting for their survival in the Leinster championship. So were Antrim and Westmeath.
Where was any potential drama in Tipp-Waterford, which, in most people’s eyes, was just a dead rubber? After losing their first three matches, Waterford were already gone from the Championship and were only playing for pride. After being hammered by Cork and Clare in their two previous games, Waterford looked like a side just praying for the season and the misery to end.
Tipperary were so sure of a win in Thurles that afternoon that they had already discreetly entered into prior negotiations with Clare about the venue for the Munster final. Clare had already qualified for the decider and the early soundings were that the final was to be played in Cork. Yet Clare and Tipp were already privately discussing that potential match-up – which everyone expected – to take place in Limerick.
And then everything changed. A week after drawing with Limerick, Tipp were completely flat and devoid of energy - and Waterford took full advantage of it.
Davy Fitzgerald threw a curveball at Tipp from the very start when playing goalkeeper Billy Nolan as a sweeper. Tipp didn’t know what hit them early on. They trailed by nine points in the first half. Waterford’s final winning margin of six points could have been far more.
Limerick’s narrow win against Cork suddenly moved them from third place into second, and into the Munster final. As well as reopening the door for Limerick and on to the pathway they craved, with just two more games to reach the All-Ireland final, it also reopened their four-week window of recovery and preparation ahead of an All-Ireland semi-final, if they were to win Munster, which they did.
A third-place finish, though, would have meant a totally different route; a preliminary quarter-final, an All-Ireland quarter-final against Galway and an All-Ireland semi-final – possibly against Kilkenny - two weeks later. They still may have won those games, but it certainly wouldn’t have been as straightforward as it was if Tipp had taken care of business against Waterford.
It would have also completely opened up the pathway for Clare and Tipp on the other side, with one of them going straight to the All-Ireland semi-final after the Munster final. They could have met Limerick there again – especially if the defeated Munster finalists came through the All-Ireland quarter-final. But the whole championship would have had a totally different feel to it.
Going back even further, Limerick could have been gone out of the Championship if there had been a two-point swing on the same afternoon in Munster in mid-May. If Cork had beaten Clare (they lost by one point) and Tipperary had taken down Limerick (they drew), Limerick would have been gone out of the championship with a game to play, based on their head-to-head result with Clare.
Limerick were still scrapping for their survival a week later against Cork. A Cork win (they lost by one point) and a Tipp victory against Waterford at the same time would have eliminated the All-Ireland champions.
Over the last few years, there have been a number of occasions when the opposition have had chances to beat Limerick. But they’ve never taken those opportunities. Clare did beat them back in April but every game Limerick have played since was effectively a knockout match, which they’ve either won or drawn.
It could have been all very different - but Limerick have made sure that it wasn’t. The test now is to finish off the job and follow that narrative that everyone expected Limerick to write from the outset of the season.