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What county is best placed to challenge this Limerick empire in 2022?

Matching the Treaty on the physicality stakes is a key ingredient for would be contenders.

The Limerick staff and squad celebrate in front of Hill 16 with the Liam MacCarthy Cup.
The Limerick staff and squad celebrate in front of Hill 16 with the Liam MacCarthy Cup.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

SUCH WAS LIMERICK’S dominance this season, a quick glance at the bookmakers’ All-Ireland odds for 2022 makes grim viewing for their rivals. 

Galway, after a championship where they lost their only two games against Dublin and Waterford, are rated as the nearest contenders at 7/1.

This is a county who’ve lost their greatest ever player Joe Canning to retirement in addition to the uncertainty surrounding Shane O’Neill’s position as manager following the completion of his initial two-year term. 

How is it that a county who didn’t play Limerick in the 2021 championship are viewed as the leaders of hurling’s chasing pack?

For one thing, the Tribesmen were on level terms with John Kiely’s men in the 75th minute of last year’s All-Ireland semi-final. They left an opportunity to win that game behind them and the three-point losing margin is the closest any side have come to Limerick since Kilkenny beat them in the 2019 semi-final. 

They won’t have psychological scars either from been blown away by Limerick this year, as Tipperary, Waterford and Cork suffered to varying degrees over the course of the summer.

Aside from the first-half against Tipperary, the Treaty barely had a glove laid on them all summer.

Not since the 1970s has a team won successive All-Ireland finals by double figures. Limerick scored an average of 2-27 across their four game run to the Liam MacCarthy Cup, prevailing by an average winning margin of 9.5 points.

Last year it was 7.4 points, so Kiely’s assertion on Sunday that Limerick are still on an “upward trajectory” looks accurate. After a near perfect display that delivered a third title in four years, that’s a scary prospect for the rest. 

Given that Nickie Quaid is the only starter over the age of 28, it’s fair to assume we’re in the middle of an era of Limerick domination. The quality of their play in the 16-point demolition of Cork drew comparisons with the great four-in-a-row Kilkenny team that hammered Waterford in the 2008 decider. 

That Kilkenny team possessed the sort of athleticism, ball winning ability, ferocious work-rate, tigerish defenders and ruthless forwards we’ve become accustomed to seeing from Limerick. 

But one side that always troubled the Cats, even during their pomp, was Galway. On the occasions the Tribesmen were able to match Kilkenny’s physicality, it led to the explosive classics involving the teams we witnessed in 2005, 2007, 2009 and 2012.

Perhaps it’s in the county’s DNA from years of coming cold into All-Ireland semi-finals and hurling up a storm, but Galway have always been capable of producing a one-off performance of beautiful fury when it mattered. 

What became clear on Sunday as Cork tried to play around Limerick is that any team looking to take down the kingpins need to bring the fight to them. The fact Cork conceded just four points from frees indicates they were not playing with the aggression required in a game of such magnitude.

You might not be able to overpower them, but breaking even in physicality stakes at the very least is a key requirement for any would be challengers.

As Tipperary did in 2010 when they matched Kilkenny’s gruelling intensity in the midfield war zone and then trusted their hurling ability to get over the line, a similar approach is required against this awesome Treaty side.

When Kieran Kingston was asked what is the most difficult team about facing Sunday’s opponents, his answer summed it up. 

“Physicality,” he replied. “I’m not saying that they’re over the edge, I’m just saying every 50-50 tackle is a 50-50 tackle and they’re really strong in the tackle.

“I think they were just at another level to Cork today. We’ve got to be honest and say that.”

sean-finn-celebrates-at-the-final-whistle-with-gearoid-hegarty Limerick's Sean Finn celebrates at the final whistle with Gearoid Hegarty. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

So given the size and power within the Tribe squad, that’s why they’re viewed as the best-placed outfit to overthrow hurling’s overlords over the coming years.

Of course, there’s a growing momentum in Cork after their recent All-Ireland minor and U20 successes, but it will take a few more years in the gym before any of that crop can be expected to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Kyle Hayes and Dan Morrissey.

Pace is important, but it won’t stop Limerick from trampling over you with their size and strength.

Both Galway and Tipperary have been reluctant to pitch talented youngsters that rolled off the underage production line with All-Ireland medals into the team, highlighting the significant jump in conditioning that comes at senior level. 

Many of Limerick’s Liam MacCarthy rivals have important decisions to make on the managerial front before they can even think about the 2022 championship. 

The identity of Tipperary’s next manager should become clear in the coming weeks, amid reports that Liam Cahill has been offered the chance to replace outgoing boss Liam Sheedy.

If Cahill decides to jump ship and take over his native county, it will force Waterford to join the managerial merry-go-round.

Even though he’s extremely familiar with the younger cohort having led Tipperary to U21 and U20 All-Ireland titles, Cahill may yet decide the Deise’s running power gives them a better chance of taking down Limerick in the short term. 

With Tadhg de Burca and Pauric Mahony set to return to the fold next season, it may be a more attractive proposition than overseeing a transition in the Premier County.

For all the gifted hurlers in Tipperary, they didn’t have the legs to compete with Limerick for a full 70 minutes and that must be addressed, whoever takes charge.

Brian Lohan looks set to extend his stay in Clare by a further three years, although even the returns of Peter Duggan (travels) and Shane O’Donnell (concussion) don’t appear enough to bridge the sizeable gap with Limerick. 

Kilkenny are best placed in Leinster to mount a challenge but like Tyrone footballers in the post-2008 era, provincial titles and regular trips to the All-Ireland semi-finals might be their lot in the coming years. 

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Brian Cody has yet to confirm his intentions for 2022, but it’s anticipated he’ll remain in place to lead the county for a 24th season. 

Even a powerhouse like TJ Reid can’t go on forever, while veterans like Walter Walsh, Cillian Buckley and Richie Hogan saw vastly reduced game-time in 2021. The loss of Colin Fennelly was significant this season and it’s unclear if he plans on returning.

They do have speed and scoring ability in Adrian Mullen and Eoin Cody, but during Cork’s extra-time win, the Cats struggled to live with the pace all over the field.

Dublin and Wexford have plenty of good athletes but lack the sort of scoring punch to be considered among the main contenders for the big prize.

If O’Neill is ousted in Galway then Mattie Kenny will be heavily linked with a return to his native county, which would open up a job in the capital. Eddie Brennan, currently coaching Cuala, Davy Fitzgerald and Anthony Daly would be among the leading contenders to replace Kenny in that scenario.

Fitzgerald’s exit in Wexford leaves them with big shoes to fill, with big names like Derek McGrath, Willie Maher and Brennan linked with that role.

There are plenty of moving parts still to be nailed down from the chasing pack and as it stands, Limerick look head and shoulders above the rest.

The return of the round-robin format in Munster next year will give them more hurdles to overcome, while injuries to key players or further bouts of indiscipline could weaken the champions.

But even allowing for potential disruptions, they’ve dealt with those issues well in the past. 

Kiely gave no indication after the weekend that he has any plans of stepping aside in the near future.

With Limerick’s impressive coaching set-up set to remain in place and the age profile of the team still in its mid-20s, it’s up to the rest to get their houses in order and find a way of taking down the empire.

It will take something special to end this era of dominance. 

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About the author:

Kevin O'Brien

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