John Kiely. Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO
Dreaming it all up

Drive For Five starts now as Kiely and Limerick figure out their motivations

A long winter with off-field trials has dominated the thoughts of Limerick hurling, before a return to the league this weekend.

WHATEVER WAY THE season ends up, there’s an excellent fly-on-the-wall book waiting to be written about the Limerick hurlers over the last decade.

If it ends without a successful outcome for the Drive For Five, then all the minor irritations that amount over the course of a season would be puffed up into an overall ‘systems failure’ narrative, one that derailed the Germanic efficiency of this smooth-running train.

The jump-off point is obvious. After a win in early January against Clare in the Munster hurling league on the plastic pitch of Clarecastle in which they held extended auditions, they were due to face Cork.

But then came the fog of Mick Neville Park in Rathkeale and a cancellation. And then came the rain and another cancellation, before the third time of asking was scuppered by Storm Isha.

A final was to be played between the winners and Waterford but it won’t happen now. Instant drama. Where would you get it?

Instead, the latest opportunity for a gambol around the field was last weekend for the Dillon Quirke Foundation. An experimental team lost heavily to Tipperary.

But the point for Limerick was – quite apart from the promotion of the Foundation – to get another look at the sophomores who have already spent a lying year on the panel.

Adam English, Shane O’Brien and Aidan O’Connor will be expected to push hard for a place in attack, while Colin Coughlan and Fergal O’Connor want to nail down a spot in defence. English, O’Connor and Coughlan are all hurling for University of Limerick which will sharpen them even further.

“We really needed the game. You could see that from us. We’re not sharp. We’ve a lot of work to do,” said manager John Kiely afterwards.

“We’re only a couple of weeks into our pre-season at this stage but clearly Tipp are further along their road of preparation than we are.

“For us, it’s back to the grindstone on Tuesday night. We’ve a lot of hard yards to make up.”

There’s only so much any team can do in a week, though you suspect Limerick were prioritising a heavy bank of physical work that tuning into the threat of Antrim who come to Semple Stadium this Sunday for the league opener; and this is the second jumping-off point.

Pure coincidence and all that it is, but 30 years ago Limerick came like a bolt from the blue, tanking Clare in the Munster final before facing Antrim in the All-Ireland semi-final.

The Saffrons had been doughty opponents at the same stage for a number of years, but Limerick, aided by Gary Kirby complete with four stitches and a nasty gash, decimated the Ulster champions to make it to their first All-Ireland final in 14 years.

gary-kirby-limerick-hurling Gary Kirby in action against Antrim,1994. © James MeehanINPHO © James MeehanINPHO

Cutting his teeth on the extended panel for his first year, was one John Kiely of Galbally.

“John was quiet enough when he was with us, but that was when he was only coming in to the scene. So he wouldn’t have been as outspoken as we were,” says Kirby now when he throws the mind into reverse and stops three decades ago.

“As time went on, he gained confidence and I think sometimes from being around teams you develop a greater understanding of life and how to deal with people as well. And that has stood to John, big time.”

Understanding of life and dealing with people. That’s been the story of how the wider world has viewed Limerick over the last couple of months, framed by the prism of Kyle Hayes’s violent disorder conviction.

Kiely gave evidence at Hayes’s sentencing hearing earlier this month, pleading with Judge Dermot Sheehan to give Hayes a second chance. Kiely is not the only GAA manager to have put themselves out like this. It places him in a bind though as sentencing is due on 20 March. One month later, they start their Munster championship.

kyle-hayes Kyle Hayes. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

“We have the Kyle Hayes thing at the moment. People are knocking the Limerick hurlers about that,” says Kirby.

“But it actually gels a team stronger together. I know that Clare people are constantly knocking Limerick.

“I know going for five in a row has to be a huge motivation for the boys and it hasn’t been done before. And that brings its’ own motivation.

“But it only takes one incident from outside of the camp to really bring the whole team together. And I think they have that, going forward.”

Using such an ugly incident as motivation is questionable. Although their sports psychologist Caroline Currid has departed the set-up, the culture she helped Kiely and Paul Kinnerk build stands for a great deal more than blind loyalty.

Finding a theme of the season year after year must feel trying when Kiely has been at it for as long.

Last year, in the same venue of Semple Stadium after the first Munster round robin game, he could get his teeth into a theory. After they demolished Kilkenny in the league final, they were showered with praise by the chorus of pundits.

This displeased Kiely. He entertained reporters after the win over Waterford, “Let’s be honest about it, there was some amount of bullshit spoken about our team and the season ahead of this week and the week before. It’s a softening up exercise mentally from those outside of our camp. But we’re around a long time.”

Whatever theme he lands on, he could always do with a new player or two to emerge and achieve what Brian Cody did. According to Jackie Tyrrell, Cody’s messaging in training and to the Kilkenny panel was that he cared nothing for a ‘settled team,’ rather he sought a ‘settled spirit.’

If some are made to feel uncomfortable, then that’s ideal.

“They won’t disregard the league completely, but they will see it for what it is,” says Kirby.

“If they lose games, I don’t think anyone will be upset. But sometime when you are playing games, you are better playing against a guy who is a regular county man, rather than the fella who is trying to make the squad. There’s more of a fight in the man who wants his place.”

A conversation with his Patrickswell clubmate Diarmuid Byrnes last week gleaned that the panel are training away, but will not be seen for the first three weeks of the hurling league.  

The dust covers might remain on the hot rods a little longer.

They might not have to be at their best to take points off an Antrim side that has suffered insurmountable losses and retirements over the winter.

Energy and emotion levels have to be assessed and motivations – beyond becoming the first hurling side to achieve five consecutive Liam MacCarthys – have to be settled upon.

Welcome to Limerick’s 2024. Whatever way it ends, it’ll be a blast.