IN the far bigger picture, the visit of Limerick to Leeside next Sunday for the Munster Hurling League encounter with Cork won’t have any great relevance given the fact that the emphasis on the selection of both sides is likely to be largely experimental.
However, at the same time, in the first of what will be at least three games between the counties over the coming months — a home clash in the NHL next month and an away game at the group stage of the Munster championship further along the line — it will be important to get things off on a right sort of a footing against what has been the top hurling county in the country over four of the last five years.
If Cork do secure a victory on Sunday you won’t see any jigs of delight from Pat Ryan on the sideline; there wasn’t from John Cleary when the Cork footballers overcame Kerry in the McGrath Cup. Ryan would, however, see a win as a confidence booster for the younger players on duty, putting down a small bit of a marker before the much bigger assignments ahead.
When the All-Ireland champions come visiting there is always an extra bit of a buzz and Páirc Uí Rinn should house a decent crowd on Sunday.
Particularly in Ulster, pre-season competitions generate large attendance levels, McKenna Cup games bringing in up to 5,000 souls on a Winter’s night.
Limerick, quite rightly, have been installed as firm favourites to make it four All-Ireland wins on the trot and if that comes to pass it would represent an achievement of gargantuan proportions. The hurling landscape is levelling out every year and putting back-to-back MacCarthy cups on the sideboard is hugely difficult, not to mind three and four.
No matter how things transpire over the coming months and deep into the Summer, Limerick’s achievement thus far has been monumental and similar to what Cork, Kilkenny and Tipperary achieved in the past, it will stand the test of time.
Limerick’s current status, the country’s number one team in the ranking list cannot be argued with and there has been a number of reasons for that.
Firstly, the management team led by John Kiely has been very astute in its dealings, getting the team to peak at the right time, having the training schedule organised with the championship and that only as the top priority.
That was very evident last season, there was a decision taken to more or less forgo the league, allowing the squad more time to have the house in proper order for the championship.
That certainly worked the oracle and it will be interesting to see if a similar approach is adopted this time.
Limerick have been involved in a few close encounters over the past couple seasons but one of their greatest strengths is to always find a way out when it might seem that they are being cornered by the opposition.
When Tony Kelly equalised from an acute sideline cut in last season’s Munster final it seemed like that the Banner County had gained a slight bit of a psychological edge entering extra time. That didn’t happen, of course, and the opposite was the case as Limerick romped home.
When the pressure is brought to bear on this Limerick team different players at different times come to the forefront. Declan Hannon might be the team captain but you could state there are leaders all over the field, be it in the full-back line, half-back line and so on.
One of the main objectives for any inter-county manager now has to be squad depth, a viable alternative in every position right throughout the field.
That’s easier said than done but the current Limerick squad has come closer than all the rest to achieving that, the introduction of subs that come up with the required contribution.
New Cork boss Pat Ryan is going along similar lines I am sure, ensuring that he has that type of depth on the bench that Limerick have had. There were bits of evidence last season that the gap between them and the chasing pack is closing and maybe it is.
Clare put it up to them a few times in Munster and their winning margins in games is being reduced.
Of course, what we have now is an entirely new season and nobody knows how that will pan out. But on what has transpired last season and the ones before that, Limerick are more than entitled to be the big fancy again.
If you ask John Kiely, Pat Ryan or any of the rest of the team bosses what their priority is right now and the answer would almost certainly be similar, to be one of the three counties that will emerge from the province. Given the very competitive nature of the Munster championship now, there won’t be any talk of winning titles, just to get that group stage hurdle out of the way.
Selecting the three that will emerge from Munster is certainly going to be no easy task, all the more so now with three of the five counties entering the arena with new management teams.
But first things first, Limerick arriving in town on Sunday should provide us with a small insight of how things might go.
How many of both counties' established players will be on duty, and how much experimentation will there be?
It should be an interesting exercise and a greater opportunity to have a closer look at some of the new players that are hoping to be part of the season’s squad.
Limerick provide the opposition in the opening game of the league too for Cork in a short few weeks and win for the home side on Sunday would not do any harm at all irrespective of the much lower status of this game.
To repeat, getting off on the right foot is what every new management team seeks and this season in both codes there are more than there have been for some time.