ON the Monday morning after last year’s All-Ireland final, a Limerick player who played in the 1994 and 1996 All-Ireland finals was in a café in Castletroy when he met two players from the current Limerick side.
The former player was taken aback by how dejected and disappointed the two current players were.
He had experienced the devastation and disappointment of losing two All-Ireland finals and thought their mood almost mirrored how he felt after 1994 and 1996.
At face value, it nearly appeared that the two had played, and lost an All-Ireland final, the previous day.
In their minds though, that was how they felt.
After whacking Tipperary in the Munster final, watching Tipp whip Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final was like a dagger through their hearts.
As the three chatted, the former player noted how the two current players weren’t just having food for the sake of meeting up for a chat.
They were wolfing carbohydrates and gulping down jugs of water; they had just come from the gym.
“Next year,” said one of the current players “starts now.”
The hurt from losing last year’s All-Ireland semi-final has driven Limerick’s focus to a whole new level this year.
In 2020, Limerick have played 12 games and won all 12. Limerick have been shooting the lights out since early January; in the Munster league, they hit 1-27 against Clare before racking up 1-32 in the final against Cork.
Limerick have been fuelled by pain but, in a much more low-key fashion, Waterford have been driven by an even more powerful form of hurt; they hadn’t won a championship game since the 2017 All-Ireland semi-final; they’d lost three of their 2019 Munster championship matches by an aggregate of 51 points; after Limerick annihilated them in Walsh Park by 20 points, the players’ character and manliness was openly questioned by media pundits everywhere.
When Liam Cahill arrived as their new manager in the autumn, he picked up on that mood of hurt and ran with it.
Cahill had shown how much pace, fitness and athleticism had governed his style with the successful Tipperary U21 and U20 teams and Cahill rolled out a brutal fitness training regime designed to steel their minds and condition the players to play that game.
Cahill has pushed Waterford to the absolute limit and the players have emphatically responded. Waterford have certainly raised the conditioning standard but they had to if they were to try and reach the levels set by Limerick.
That was obvious in the Munster final when Limerick just looked to be that bit further ahead in terms of their development and experience.
Limerick are firm favourites to win on Sunday but there’s also ample evidence to suggest that Waterford are a much better team now from the side which lost the Munster final. They will take massive confidence from how they beat Kilkenny but Waterford also look like a team made for Croke Park.
Some of their players which struggled in the Muster final – particularly Austin Gleeson and Dessie Hutchinson – have hit serious form in the last two matches; Gleeson scored three points in the Munster final from three shots; he scored four points against Kilkenny but he got off an incredible 11 shots. Hutchinson could take off in Croke Park.
Waterford’s form graph is clearly on the rise whereas Limerick’s has been steady all season.
They did just enough against Galway but the statistics showed just how dominant Limerick were in that game; they created 20 more scoring chances from play than Galway; Limerick could have had four goals, whereas Galway never had a single shot on goal.
If you remove Galway’s incredible tally of five points from sideline cuts, Limerick could have won that match by 12 points.
Waterford will need to be more productive and accurate than they were against Kilkenny, when they only had a 59% conversion rate from play, which would never be enough to beat Limerick. On the other hand, they did create 14 more scoring chances from play than Kilkenny and they showed the damage they can cause in Croke Park with their pace and direct running.
Limerick have added pace to their half-back line now with Kyle Hayes but one of Limerick’s greatest strengths is how they don’t give teams opportunities to run at their defence. Waterford didn’t score a goal in the Munster final but they were only a couple of mistimed passes away from potentially rattling the net.
Limerick’s half-forward line was the difference against Galway but they didn’t get it all their own way in the Munster final and Waterford will look to build on what they did that afternoon. Kevin Moran won his individual battle against Tom Morrissey so they’ll stick with that match-up.
Tadgh de Burca and Calum Lyons stayed back in defence while Jack Fagan was effectively given the role of man-marking Gearoid Hegarty. Yet Lyons is so devastating going forward that Waterford may push him up on Hegarty and hope that Fagan and another half forward will track into the space that has opened up.
Waterford will aim to use the ball smarter than they did in the Munster final.
They’ve also been highly productive off their own puckout but Limerick are the masters at profiting on the scoreboard off the opposition puck out.
Whatever happens now, it will be intriguing, especially when Waterford have become used and comfortable with being the hunters. Limerick are rightly fancied to win.
They are driven by the pain of 2019. But so are Waterford.