Cork and the rest know the path to glory will involve going through lethal Limerick

Cork and the rest know the path to glory will involve going through lethal Limerick
Aaron Gillane takes on Noel Connors. Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

EVERY year the All-Ireland hurling champions roll into the following season as the team to beat.

Kilkenny, for much of the modern era, Cork, Tipperary, Clare and Galway have all been the top dogs before a sliotar was pucked in the summer, yet only the Cats and Rebels actually retained Liam McCarthy after.

Limerick are the latest occupiers of the Iron Throne and so far their status as hurling's kings hasn't been an issue. Given how comfortably they beat Waterford in the league final at Croke Park last weekend there is huge hype about the Treaty at the moment.

They deserve it too because their blend of physicality and clever hurling is extremely enjoyable to watch. The work-rate and ferocity of Diarmuid Byrnes, Kyle Hayes, and Gearóid Hegarty complements the composure of the Morrisseys and Declan Hannon through the half lines.

Midfielder Cian Lynch is their maestro. Endlessly inventive. He was a promising teenage soccer player before hurling took over so maybe that's why his spatial awareness is reminiscent of Andrés Iniesta's when he orchestrated the Barca attack.

Cian Lynch finds a pass to Seamus Flanagan for a goal. Picture: INPHO/Tommy Dickson
Cian Lynch finds a pass to Seamus Flanagan for a goal. Picture: INPHO/Tommy Dickson

Lynch's pass to Seamus Flanagan for his goal against Dublin in the league semi-final was a highlight of the season so far. Even a dynamo like Jamie Barron couldn't slow him down last weekend.

Aaron Gillane missed out on an All-Star but has hurled up a storm this spring. He took Noel Connors for 1-5 from play at headquarters, could easily have added another three points to that tally and Stephen O'Keeffe denied him an early goal before his Jimmy Barry-Murphy-esque first-time finish. 

Kilbrittain native Jamie Wall who worked with him in Mary I had a big influence on Gillane's career. He's a very different animal to the callow forward who was on the fringes for the Limerick minors, wristy but capable of securing long deliveries whether they're high or low.

Injuries reduced Peter Casey to cameo appearances last year but he's sniped some lovely points in every league game and is tirelessly harrying the opposition rearguard too. He looks set to fulfil the promise of the minor who shot down Cork in 2014 and since then shone for his club Na Piarsaign and the Limerick U21s.

Peter Casey hits the killer goal against the Cork minors five years ago. 
Peter Casey hits the killer goal against the Cork minors five years ago. 

The depth of John Kiely's squad has been mentioned time and again since last season, which Cork know all about after the All-Ireland semi-final. Not only does it give them multiple bench options, but it's also ensuring there's that bite to training that served Brian Cody's Kilkenny outfits so well.

A measure of their quality is that Paddy O'Loughlin is only a back-up for the defence. O'Loughlin, who attended secondary school in Charleville CBC where he hurled alongside Darragh Fitzgibbon, was a powerhouse for UCC in their Fitzgibbon Cup triumph.

Charleville CBS' Paddy O'Loughlin gathers the ball in a 2014 Harty Cup tie. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Charleville CBS' Paddy O'Loughlin gathers the ball in a 2014 Harty Cup tie. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

It all adds up to a strong case for Limerick returning to Croke Park this August, as reigning All-Ireland and league champions and lords of Munster too. The provincial series will be a bear pit but they've the advantage of hosting Clare and Cork.

Kiely has lost Caroline Currid as a performance consultant but this group appear incredibly grounded and in Paul Kinnerk they've a coach who has been through an All-Ireland title defence previously with Clare. Former Galway centre-back Tony Óg Regan is now in place as a sounding board and while there's an expectation on Limerick they never had before it might not matter.

The Banner, an extremely youthful team it must be said, couldn't cope with similar pressure as All-Ireland winners to the degree that they were beaten in Munster by Cork and then dumped out of the qualifiers by Wexford. They did lift the league in 2016 but haven't been back to the All-Ireland final since 2013 and lost the last two Munster deciders.

The Treaty probably have a better mix in their team, where Clare were very reliant on nimble forwards and didn't have the same discipline in defence. Indeed they still suffer from giving away too many needless scoreable frees.

Still, there's plenty could go wrong for Limerick between here and All-Ireland final day. They didn't have any major injuries in 2018 but, and consider Galway's plight with Joe Canning struggling to get back for the Leinster championship, that could change. The likes of Hannon, Lynch and Gillane would be difficult to replace no matter how deep their panel is.

While they are at home to Cork, who never seem to do well in the Gaelic Grounds, and Clare, those counties did dish out their last league and championship defeats respectively. Going down to Walsh Park in front of a hostile crowd against a Waterford team stung from the league final won't be easy.

And Tipp, allowing for their inconsistency, have the experience on the field and the manager in Liam Sheedy to find a way to engineer a result in Thurles.

For all those possibilities, the likelihood is Limerick will reach the Munster final and be tough to beat. If they face Cork it'll be on Shannonside.

Nickie Quaid denying Seamus Harnedy in 2013, as he would more famously five years later. Picture: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Nickie Quaid denying Seamus Harnedy in 2013, as he would more famously five years later. Picture: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

While Limerick secured the Munster crown in 2013, most of the line-up from that season is gone. Of the 20 who featured when John Allen guided them past his native county, only Nickie Quaid, Hannon and Graeme Mulcahy remain vital cogs, though Tom Condon and Shane Dowling still get game-time too.

Hunger shouldn't be a problem for Kiely's charges and the winning habit has given the players and their supporters a self-belief the Treaty never really had before.

Here in The Echo we keep the spotlight on Rebel affairs but there's absolutely no question about who the hurlers will have to go through to make an impact this year.

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