AFTER last month’s Limerick-Dublin league semi-final, Limerick manager John Kiely referred to the stop-start nature of the match, and how Limerick struggled to deal with how Dublin had set up.
“It wasn’t a very enjoyable game, the way it evolved today,” said Kiely. “Some days you just have to grind it out and get the job done. Some days the game is about the process and moving through it – and backing the process.”
Limerick eventually extricated themselves from Dublin’s headlock with their class, quality and firepower up front. Dublin effectively played four at the back for most of the Limerick game (a sweeper and three man-markers) but they were hammered for their approach afterwards.
Early on in that game, Eddie Brennan posted a tweet. ‘God this is ugly hurling, as near as it gets to all out defending which has destroyed Gaelic football. Dublin coming with a plan to saturate between the 45s and frustrating Limerick.’
Brennan’s tweet triggered a long thread of responses. Brennan fired off a number of replies to reaffirm his point, one of which was: ‘We all get the winning & results side of things but if skillful hurlers are gonna get smothered and choked by numbers, people will not go to games. Rubgy with hurls, no thanks.’
It was one of the hardest-hitting league games in years. The statistic for turnovers-in-possession underlined as much, with a colossal 41 over the 70-plus minutes.
That smothering and suffocating style doesn’t exactly appeal to the purists but it almost worked for Dublin, who got a lot closer to the All-Ireland champions than Tipperary, Kilkenny, Laois and Waterford managed during the league.
Dublin’s way of setting up against Limerick also underlined how much the All-Ireland champions’ template is invariably copied, studied and heavily dissected the following season by most teams. And the subtle style-change throughout this year’s league largely came from those teams plotting to try and beat Limerick.
There was a move to greater physical presence, and physicality, in the middle third. That has largely formed the basis of modern hurling for over a decade but, with half-forward lines coming deeper again this spring, before looking to break forward with massive pace, the congestion in that warzone has never been greater.
Anytime the quality drops in hurling, or a negative style seems to be taking hold, the reflex response amongst hurling people is to worry about the direction the game is taking. That might sound ludicrous after the exhilarating drama of last summer but it’s less than three years since the game was deemed to be at a critical crossroads.
Sweepers were in vogue throughout 2016 but much of the hurling in 2015 and 2016 was more clinical because teams didn’t want the ball to be contested in the air or on the ground. That process can be cold because it doesn’t engage the crowd as much. And by the end of 2016, the chill running through the game was obvious.
Not every team was being ultra-defensive but that was still the great riddle facing hurling’s chasing pack before they eventually caught up with Kilkenny – did you stick to your system, be hard to beat, hang in there for as long as possible, and give yourself a chance down the home straight?
After Tipperary blitzed Kilkenny in the 2016 All-Ireland final though, the ground-rules changed again. Managers, coaches and players began to trust themselves more and just go for it. The upshot was that the 2017 and 2018 championships were the highest scoring in the game’s history.
Hurling has the balance right again. Randomness has always been a fundamental part of its appeal, but the modern game has been all about reducing that influence.
The best teams now are tactically fluid and adaptable and Limerick, along with having the strongest panel in the country, appear to have the greatest tactical flexibility of any team now.
As Kiely said, they will always trust and stick to the process, but the examination into trying to stop Limerick will have gone up another level after their destruction of Waterford in the league final. Especially when Limerick looked to have another gear, and when scoring 1-24 despite only having a 57% conversion rate.
Limerick’s movement and ability and potential to create so much space and disorientation up front is so devastating that it has asked hard questions of what the opposition now need to do next to stop them over the summer?
On the otherhand, is that argument overplayed? Most teams will invariably want to play to their own strengths first, and back themselves, no matter what Limerick do.
When Cork played Limerick in the league in February, they were more tactical than at any other stage of the campaign.
The Limerick half-forward line’s ability to dominate that middle third governs so much of their system but Cork came to the Gaelic Grounds with a clear plan to stifle their system; Robert Downey and Christopher Joyce had adhesive man-marking jobs on Tom Morrissey and Gearóid Hegarty; Bill Cooper was chained to Cian Lynch, never letting him run forward freely; Eoin Cadogan went everywhere with the roaming Seamie Flanagan. Cork delivered their best performance of the campaign to inflict Limerick’s first, and only defeat, of the league.
Cork will look to bring a similar plan to the Gaelic Grounds when they face Limerick there in Round 2. Yet Cork can’t even contemplate that match-up at the moment because their only focus for now is on Tipperary on May 12.
Dublin and Cork may have opened up windows of examples this spring into how best to stop Limerick but every team has to focus on themselves first.
Limerick look to be ahead of everyone else at the moment but are they either?
Teams were holding back during the spring to be primed for May and June. And everyone will know more as to how good Limerick really are by the time the dust has settled on the Round Robin Munster championship.