MARCH 22, 2009, it’s half-time in a National Hurling League match at Nowlan Park and a shellshocked and dazed young Tipperary trudge towards the sanctuary of the dressing rooms.
Liam Sheedy’s side are 20 points down with 35 minutes remaining. They are up against the greatest team of all time, that dismantled poor Waterford by 3-30 to 1-13 six months previously in the All-Ireland final.
Kilkenny are without Henry, ‘Cha’, Lyng, JJ and Larkin that day. Legends all, but it did not matter, as a Martin Comerford hat-trick helped Brian Cody’s side to a resounding 5-9 to 0-4 interval lead.
To Tipp’s credit, they only lose by 17. But the message was clear. That Kilkenny team were in a different league to every other county at that time. They had three-in-a-row in the bag and there was simply no sign of anyone else getting within touching distance of them for years to come.
Fast forward just six weeks and the sides met again, this time in the league final. Kilkenny are, as expected, crowned champions, but they have been taken all the way to extra-time by Tipp, who have managed to make serious strides in that month and a half. Youngsters like 18-year-old Noel McGrath, Seamus Callinan, Pádraic Maher and Brendan Maher have stepped up from being exciting prospects to physically going toe-to-toe with some of the finest players of all time.
In just a few short weeks a line had been drawn in the sand and the landscape of hurling had irreversibly shifted. Later that year the two sides would meet in arguably the greatest All-Ireland final of all time, and while Kilkenny would win thanks to a controversial late penalty Tipp now had their number, and they were to stop their five-in-a-row bid 12 months later.
Since last Sunday’s All-Ireland final the victorious Limerick team have been compared to all-conquering Kilkenny and given the manner of their 16-point victory over Cork it seems a reasonable enough comparison. Certainly, you would imagine that the Cork team would have been experiencing similar emotions to that Tipp side, losing by 3-18 to 1-11 at the break.
Limerick were immense, the perfect hurling machine at times, able to go short or long, able to use guile or strength. It did not matter. Limerick could do it any way they wanted. They were never going to be stopped on the day.
In saying that, Cork made it way too easy for them, to such an extent that almost every Limerick possession seemed to result in a scoring opportunity.
Leaving Limerick take short puck-outs and then not putting pressure on the ball coming out. Leaving Kyle Hayes virtually unmarked, thereby giving Limerick an easy out-ball. Pushing the Cork half-back line up too high, thereby allowing Limerick to feed whatever ball they liked into their full-forward line. The poor Cork full-back line was sold down the river on that one.
That’s a quick synopsis, but an accurate one. As a defensive entity, Cork were a no-show.
Harsh lessons were learned. You would hope though that this young Cork side can improve, and improve quickly, just like Liam Sheedy’s crop of 12 years ago.
Cork must not try and copy Limerick.
You don’t see Limerick making many hooks and blocks.
Instead, you see them making big, high physical hits, designed to stop their opponent in their tracks, at least long enough for their team-mates to come along and finish the job.
A lot of these tackles may be borderline illegal, but as they are not being blown, it is high time Cork start doing the same. To compare Limerick’s tackling technique to the majority of Cork hurlers you would think they are playing a different sport.
Many of the U20 All-Ireland winners of 2020 and 2021 are coming on stream. A lot of these players demonstrated in these All-Ireland wins the importance of ball-winning and work-rate. The raw material is there.
The penny has surely dropped by now that if Cork are to get to Limerick’s level then they simply much match them in terms of work-rate off the ball and in terms of forcing turnovers.