Sport

Has Limerick machine run out of road? Kiely will be determined to prove doubters wrong

Limerick, under manager John Kiely, have been the rock on which all other teams have broken in recent years? Can the Treatymen actually be put out of the Championship by Tipperary?
Limerick, under manager John Kiely, have been the rock on which all other teams have broken in recent years? Can the Treatymen actually be put out of the Championship by Tipperary?

Within the Limerick squad, the players have always been excited and energised by John Kiely's desire to be different, to break down new barriers, to take Limerick places where they've never been before. And to prove people wrong.

Limerick showed little or no interest in the League over the last two years. The only game they won in last year's competition was against Offaly. When Limerick subsequently went on to win another All-Ireland, every other team, bar Kilkenny, seemed to take their direction from Limerick's lead by showing no interest in this year's League. And then Limerick went on to emphatically win the competition.

Kiely said that the players more or less decided that pathway. They had a good break after the All-Ireland final last July. The players felt fresh and ready to go for the League, as opposed to plodding their way through the competition as they had in 2022.

There was no reason for Kiely to doubt the formula that had worked so well for Limerick in 2021 and 2022, when they only won three of 10 matches. Waterford won the League last year before blowing up in the Championship.

Was winning the League any benefit to Limerick, especially when every game in Munster was going to be a big event? If the cynics said it wasn't, Kiely was determined to prove them wrong.

When Limerick hammered Kilkenny in the League Final in early April, without a handful of their best players, they appeared to be at a place that Kilkenny had reached in their pomp under Brian Cody – they could win whatever they wanted when they put their minds to that task.

That great Kilkenny team at their peak, which won four-in-a-row, were deemed to be the greatest ever, so great that everyone doubted if we would ever see their like again, especially in our lifetime.

Then, all of a sudden, they had a legitimate challenger, an opponent already close to standing as their peers, with the potential to possibly even stride past that side of Kilkenny immortals.

How did this happen, and so quickly? When Limerick finally emerged from the darkness in 2018, they were the fifth different county to win an All-Ireland in that decade, the newest chapter in another captivating storyline as the hurling championship continued to be gripped in convulsions.

Cian Lynch of Limerick in action against Noel McGrath of Tipperary during the Allianz Hurling League Division 1 semi-final in March.
Cian Lynch of Limerick in action against Noel McGrath of Tipperary during the Allianz Hurling League Division 1 semi-final in March.

After the seismic 2013 summer, the Championship remained full of live contenders. The days of one side taking ownership of the summer were deemed to be over. And then Limerick radically altered the narrative.

In sport, evolution always contains a degree of imitation and, in so many ways, this Limerick team are a mirror image of Cody's elite performers.

Power. Skill execution under the most unimaginable pressure. A ravenous appetite for work. A sustained ferocity. And an incredible culture.

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

The wonder of that Order is how easy they have often made it look when the system has never been as hard to dominate.

During Kilkenny's four-in-a-row, they played 18 games. Limerick played seven games alone last year.

It's never black and white but the difference between what Limerick have already done, and what Kilkenny did, is that Limerick never had handy games in Munster like Kilkenny too often had in Leinster. During Kilkenny's four-in-a-row, they won their eight games in Leinster by an aggregate margin of 98 points.

Great teams leave a huge imprint but the legacies of the greatest teams is how they fundamentally change the game. And, similar to Cody's Kilkenny, this Limerick team emphatically has.

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 power forward.

And now, all of a sudden, the biggest question being asked is has the machine finally slowed down?

Poor against Waterford and lucky to survive, their loss to Clare was a first Championship defeat since August 2019. That first defeat was always going to be seismic but is there any need for panic?

Clare had drawn with Limerick twice over 70 minutes last summer. Clare were fighting for their lives. Limerick's conversion rate last time out was just above 50 per cent. Limerick lost key players to injury. More key men under-performed. And Limerick still only lost by one point.

Limerick have had a three-week break and an opportunity to re-charge the batteries. But they needed it because they haven't looked themselves.

Seán Finn is gone for the year with a torn ACL. Cian Lynch's hamstring issues have flared up again. Declan Hannon has had a groin problem. Gearóid Hegarty has been poor. So has Aaron Gillane. Barry Nash and Kyle Hayes have been presented with new tactical challenges to stop their running game.

The Waterford game was the first time in four years that Limerick didn't tactically dictate the terms and conditions of a championship match. After physically dominating Waterford in the opening quarter, minutes, Limerick's tackle count and overall intensity rate hasn't been as efficient since. Their laser stick-passing hasn't been as slick.

Limerick only got off 31 shots against Waterford, way below their normal standards. In their opening two Championship matches last year, Limerick accumulated 19 more points (white flags) from play.

The machine couldn't keep going at such a relentless pace. And now Limerick have arrived at a critical crossroads. A defeat on Sunday against Tipperary, and a Cork victory against Clare in Ennis would see Limerick eliminated from the Championship with one round to play.

Could the unimaginable happen? Kiely will be more desperate than ever before to prove any doubters wrong.