Christy O'Connor: Limerick hurlers have created a legacy to stay at the forefront of hurling for a generation

'New players are hot-housed in the Gaelic Grounds and Rathkeale from training with some of the game's great players. They also quickly learn the standards great teams demand.'
Christy O'Connor: Limerick hurlers have created a legacy to stay at the forefront of hurling for a generation

SERIOUS SHAPE: Limerick players, from left, Nickie Quaid, Sean Finn, Mike Casey, Peter Nash and Diarmaid Byrnes after the Munster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Final. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

THREE weeks after the 2018 All-Ireland final, Nickie Quaid was driving home from school in Patrickswell when his mind started drifting back to a place he had occupied for as long as he could remember.

“It just popped into my head, ‘I wonder what it would be like to win an All-Ireland?” recalled Quaid that December. “Then I almost had to pinch myself, ‘We have done it now’. You’re so programmed to going back training in the winter in November, and picturing what it would be like. Now having lived those memories, you just want to do it again.” 

It was always going to take Quaid and the older players more time to make that mental adjustment, and to actually believe that Limerick could win more than just one All-Ireland.

Yet that was never an issue for the younger generation, many of whom had won three All-Irelands during the previous four years, having bagged All-Ireland U21 titles in 2015 and 2017.

With a host of those players also having played in the 2014 All-Ireland minor final, they had been so used to the big stage that they felt it was where they belonged.

A couple of days after that 2018 final, Ger and Majella Hegarty, parents of Gearóid, invited a few of the players back to their home on the edge of Limerick city. They were having a few beers in the back room when Ger asked Seán Finn: “Is there another one (All-Ireland) in ye?” Finn’s five word reply was loud and clear and with a firm exclamation mark to underline its intent. “You mean only one more?” 

 Although they were a young squad, Limerick were already thinking about the legacy they have since created, and are continuing to build.

In his seminal book, ‘ Legacy’, James Kerr outlines how the All-Blacks starting point in redesigning the world’s most successful sporting culture was developing the character of the players off the pitch, so that they could perform better on it. The challenge then was to work out how to make it real. "There was no blueprint,” said Graham Henry. “You couldn't just look it up on the internet."

The plan revolved around a number of critical pillars ranging from individual personal development to a philosophy of continual improvement. The All-Blacks had always been successful but once the culture changed, results went to another level.

Winning cultures start from the bottom up, beginning with parents, guardians, clubs and coaches. But a philosophy of continual improvement in a team environment is largely structured around key principles and stable pillars. Those pillars took a long time to erect but they were firmly put in place in Limerick during the start of the last decade.#

HISTORY MAKERS

Limerick always had good players but the overall culture just wasn’t always conducive to giving them the best chance of success. Yet the 2010 players' strike was Ground Zero and the establishment of the Underage Academy shortly afterwards established a high-performance environment from a young age, which fostered a strong ethos of doing everything right.

That culture extended beyond the players. Parents were educated around nutrition and best practise off the pitch. The drop-off statistic for players leaving the Academy to play rugby or soccer, which was always high, plummeted.

Bridging a 45-year gap in 2018 ensured history and immortality for the group, but Limerick were never going to stop there, especially when the foundations were set and the pillars they had constructed had the potential to tower into the sky for years to come.

As with any successful team though, there can be a tendency to inflate the myth around them from the outside. In so many ways, Limerick now are a carbon copy of Kilkenny at their peak under Brian Cody; they have the best players; they are physically superior to everyone else; their success pumps their confidence; their manager constantly demands more; the crucible of their training ground environment sets their standards.

More than anything though, Limerick’s culture drives their ambition, which is how all great sporting teams operate in a high-performing environment governed and controlled by an ambitious manager and the group themselves.

Similar to Kilkenny at their peak under Cody, John Kiely has had a uniquely talented bunch of players but managing that talent and continually maintaining that edge, which generates their relentless drive, is the greatest testament to that culture Kiely has created.

Tommy Walsh, Kilkenny, gets his shot away despite the attempted hook from Noel McGrath, Tipperary, at the height of that rivalry in 2011. Picture: Dáire Brennan/SPORTSFILE
Tommy Walsh, Kilkenny, gets his shot away despite the attempted hook from Noel McGrath, Tipperary, at the height of that rivalry in 2011. Picture: Dáire Brennan/SPORTSFILE

It's a core philosophy which defines all great teams; the importance of the group always comes before the ego of the individual.

Despite all they have won, Kiely has still always been able to get every Limerick player to play with a level of humility, which is also an extension of their manic work-rate and insatiable desire.

Similar to the training environment of Nowlan Park, new players are hot-housed in the Gaelic Grounds and Rathkeale from training with some of the game's great players. They also quickly learn the standards great teams demand.

More is never enough. "Everything has been perfectly aligned,” wrote Quaid in the Official GAA Croke Park Annual, Ár gCluichí Féín. “Everyone involved is pulling in the same direction and there is a great group of players and a great backroom team.

“You always have something to improve on and we try to stick to that, working on ourselves and our own numbers and concentrate on ourselves physically and hurling wise to give yourself the opportunity to perform at your best.” 

The wheels keep turning, the seasons keep changing, but amongst the top teams, a pervasive and continuous culture of success gets stronger all the time.

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