Micheal Houlihan lines up a free for Limerick. Evan Treacy/INPHO

Kilmallock pair impress as Limerick's hurling forward options increase

Micheal Houlihan and Shane O’Brien pointed the way for Limerick last night.

WHEN CLARE SQUARED up to Limerick in last year’s classic Munster final and pushed them to the wire in Thurles, they were tested in several ways by their opponents attacking strength.

When the teams renewed acquaintances last night under the February lights on Shannonside, the complexion of the starting Limerick attack had changed.

Kyle Hayes was shifted back to defence, Tom Morrissey was on the bench. Cathal O’Neill and Aaron Gillane were both not involved.

Seamus Flanagan was the chief tormentor of Clare last June, slinging over eight points in a wondrous performance. He was tied down and kept scoreless here, yet for all that change Clare still suffered as they shipped 1-27, only two points less than the total Limerick posted in the 2022 instalment that stretched to over 90 minutes due to extra-time.

Clare were stripped of totemic figures like John Conlon and Tony Kelly from their line-up but the critical difference was how Limerick continue to look energised, new faces popping up to make their mark.

Micheal Houlihan was a member of the extended Limerick senior squad last year, he got his hands on the Liam MacCarthy Cup in Croke Park but did not see gametime during the season. Shane O’Brien did celebrate as a player in Croke Park last year but that was in Ardscoil Rís colours on St Patrick’s Day, registering four points as his school lifted the Croke Cup. As the campaign unfolded O’Brien’s focus was on the Limerick U20 side that journeyed to the All-Ireland final before losing to Derek Lyng’s Kilkenny.

At the outset of 2023, the Kilmallock pair are embedded in the Limerick senior setup and here they caught the eye. Houlihan finished the game with 0-12, eight supplied from frees and four knocked over from play. That return was enough to secure him the man-of-the-match bauble. O’Brien’s scoring tally was more modest with two points but his display contained enough positive traits to suggest the swell of optimism that surrounds this young hurling talent is looking increasingly justified.

shane-obrien-with-adam-hogan Shane O'Brien in action for Limerick. Evan Treacy / INPHO Evan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

Houlihan hit the ground running. He does not have a decorated Limerick underage career to draw on, involved in the U21 team that got knocked out at the Munster semi-final stage in 2018. He does have a solid body of club work behind him, that helped propel him into the inter-county limelight. When Kilmallock won the 2021 Limerick senior final Houlihan shot 0-11 and matched that tally in the Munster semi-final against Midleton that year. 16 of those 22 points were potted from frees.

Kilmallock were blitzed in January last year by Ballygunner in the Munster club final, but the loss of Houlihan in the first half to injury didn’t aid their cause. Club form persuaded John Kiely to have a look at Houlihan, injury affected him last year and a stellar attacking cast was hard to slot in alongside.

micheal-houlihan-celebrates-after-the-game Micheal Houlihan after the 2021 Limerick senior hurling final. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

Last night he got his chance and seized it. He roamed across the half-forward line to swing over three points from play inside the opening seven minutes. It was a stunning start, his fourth point from play arrived in the 16th minute but there were other elements to his performance.

David Reidy limped out of the game after eight minutes with a hamstring complaint. He was Limerick’s plan for free-taking with Aaron Gillane absent, Tom Morrissey on the bench and Diarmaid Byrnes, the long-range option, a few weeks away from returning.

In the search for a solution, Limerick turned to Houlihan. In Kilmallock colours, free-taking is his calling card and the Gaelic Grounds a second home. The pressure is elevated in the Limerick ranks. He missed his first free in the 12th minute, converted in the 14th and was off target again in the 17th. From there he was assured and reliable, finishing on that 0-12 tally. There were a couple of nice handpasses to lay off chances for Cian Lynch and Adam English to point in the opening half.

And an even better pass to English five minutes from time, right in front of the appreciative audience in the Mick Mackey Stand, when he scooped the ball up and flicked it on without catching it, right into the path of the Doon man, who sprinted clear and played a pinpoint pass to set up Donnacha Ó Dálaigh for a simple finish to the net.

For a first sample of big time hurling, this was a fine statement by Houlihan. His manager acknowledged that and then swiftly stressed the fundamentals at play for this Limerick group.

“Listen he did yeah (do well) but he’s one of many that did well tonight in the first 50, 60 minutes,” said John Kiely.

“If he’s going to earn his place on the team, he’s going to have to do that on a regular basis. Well done to him tonight but it’s got to be backed up again as we go forward.”

john-kiely Limerick manager John Kiely. Evan Treacy / INPHO Evan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

Shane O’Brien is a younger hurling model, a precocious talent that has been tipped for a while. He had a striking family link to this fixture. His father Adrian is S&C coach for Clare, his reputation was embellished last autumn with his club coaching success in Cork with St Finbarr’s and in Clare with Ballyea.

A second-half substitute last weekend against Cork, Shane started here. He was lively in attack, troublesome for the Clare defence. Dragged down for a free that Houlihan converted, accurate in rifling over a 15th minute point. Early in the second half he cut in from the right flank, showing a nose for goal, and only for another Clare foul, something greater than a pointed free may have materialised for Limerick. Moments later he danced around the defensive cover and popped over his second point. There is a menace to his attacking movement and as he headed off after being substituted in the 51st minute, he was greeted warmly by the home support.

For the Kilmallock pair it was a night to advertise their abilities.

The work will keep increasing. Limerick travel to Salthill on 27 February to take on Galway. The competition for forward line places will intensify. A solid start ahead of future challenges.

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