Limerick hurlers hunt for lasting legacy
By John Harrington
This Limerick hurling team has been so successful for the last four years that history’s hand now rests on their shoulder every time they go out to play.
Sunday’s Munster Hurling Final against Tipperary is a case in point.
If they beat their great rivals for a third Championship match in a row, it would be the first time they’ll have achieved that feat since 1948.
More importantly, it would be their first three-in-a-row of Munster senior titles since 1935.
That great Mick Mackey powered Limerick team of the 1930s remains the high water-mark for Shannonsiders when judging greatness.
They won four Munster titles in a row from 1933 to ’36 and contested the All-Ireland Final in each of those years, winning two of them. There was also the not insignificant achievement of winning five National Leagus in a row from '34 to '38.
Many of the same players enjoyed one last hurrah in 1940, winning provincial and All-Ireland titles again.
Now, nine decades later, Limerick has a hurling team that might soon themselves take on the mantle as the greatest the county has ever produced.
Since 2018 they’ve won two All-Ireland titles, two Munster titles, and two National Leagues, and given the youthful age-profile of the team there’s every reason to expect they’ll win plenty more silverware in the coming years.
Winning back to back All-Irelands to make it three in four years would go a very long way to cementing their status as not just one of the greatest teams to ever emerge from Limerick, but one of the great teams of any era, full-stop.
Sometimes history’s hand can weigh heavily on a team trying to break new ground so it’s no surprise to hear Gearoid Hegarty insist that the prospect of creating a lasting legacy isn’t something the players are focused on right now.
“We haven't talked about anything like that at all,” he says.
“I'm 26, I'm nearly one of the older panel members on the team. We've two 18-year-olds sitting their leaving cert, do you think that they're talking about legacy?
“They're not…there's nobody talking about legacy in our camp. I honestly just believe if you have a mindset that you're going to be the best you can be and get the most out of yourself well then see where that takes you.
“You can talk about legacy in 10 or 15 years’ time when you're sitting at the bar drinking a pint of Guinness, talking to other auld lads in the pub. There'll be plenty of time to talk about that in time.
“As you can imagine, when you've two 18-year-olds in there, there's not going to be any legacy talk. We'll leave that to other people. They can talk about what they like. Maybe when we're retired, we might talk about it down the line.”
They mightn’t be talking about it, but actions speak louder than words and it’s very obvious that this group of Limerick hurlers is hugely driven to win as much as they can for as long as they can.
Their reaction to losing the 2019 All-Ireland SHC semi-final to Kilkenny tell you all you need to know about their mettle.
Last year they played with a more ferocious will to win than ever, and were better than every team in the country by a significant margin as they won all 10 matches they played in League and Championship.
Hegarty, who had a quiet game by his high standards in that 2019 defeat to Kilkenny, doesn’t mind admitting that the desolation the group felt after the loss has given them all the motivation they need to never let their standards drop again.
“I was actually listening to a really good podcast about Steven Gerrard and his career and he mentioned something that has stuck with me since,” says Hegarty.
“He mentioned how a massive failure can actually be the catalyst for a period of success or for another massive achievement. You can kind of sink or swim after a defeat like that in 2019, and it was obviously disappointing for the team. You're right, things didn't go all that right for me on a personal level either but as I said, you can sink or swim.
“You can go back to the drawing board and say 'aw look it, we're not good enough. I couldn't be bothered putting in the work'. Or you can grit your teeth and get on with it and come back with vengeance.
“I think we did that in 2020. I think the challenge for us this year is to replicate that now this year in 2021.
“It's nearly more satisfying after a failure like that, that you can come back the following year, and win having done similar enough things. That is immensely enjoyable and satisfactory you know.”
The bookies at least are very confident that Limerick will beat Tipperary in Sunday’s Munster Final and go on from there to win a third All-Ireland in four years.
Perhaps the chasing pack can take some scraps of encouragement though from the fact that Limerick, so far at least, haven’t quite looked so imperious as they did last year.
They only won two of the five matches they played in the Allianz League and were surprisingly sloppy at times in the Munster semi-final against Cork, hitting an eye-watering 20 wides over the course of the match.
The flip-side of that coin is that they still won by eight points despite playing well within themselves, and with just a few tightening turns of a wrench you’d expect the green machine to be at full throttle again before the summer is over.
Limerick manager, John Kiely, certainly thinks they’re in a good place to find that room for improvement against Tipp.
“I think we showed great resilience (in the Munster semi-final) because Cork put up a fantastic performance on the night and in many respects they put us under a lot of pressure and we definitely identified a number of areas that were not up to scratch on the night in terms of our own use of the ball and our own puckout and our own shooting in particular,” he said.
“We came home with a very grounded feeling of there is a lot of work to do here and we better get down to brass tacks.
“There was a really, really good piece of work done on Tuesday of last week, Friday of last week, and on Sunday. I think getting that first game, that first championship match under your belt is a huge lift.
“While we didn’t play our best hurling on the day, or weren’t let play our best hurling on the day, we did a lot of really good things at the same time.
“We know there are areas we need to improve on in terms of our shooting accuracy, in terms of our use of the ball. We can do better in those areas. But the boys have really knuckled down in terms of training and finding those improvements for Sunday.”
One of the strengths of this Limerick team under Kiely is that they take every game on its merits and usually deliver a big performance when one is needed most.
All of those one game at a time wins are quickly accumulating into silverware won and history inked.
You get the feeling that by the time Hegarty and his team-mates do get around to sitting on bar-stools and shooting the breeze with other auld lads, they’ll have a lot of legacy to talk about.