Bench press may hold key in Waterford's bid to take down Limerick

The two strongest squads in the country meet tomorrow night.

Jamie Barron came off the bench against Tipperary.
Jamie Barron came off the bench against Tipperary.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

THERE’S EVERY CHANCE Saturday’s clash at the Gaelic Grounds could be the first of three meetings between Limerick and Waterford in the championship. 

It pits the most dominant team in hurling against the newly crowned league champions.

The general consensus is Waterford are the greatest pretenders to Limerick’s throne. 

John Kiely’s team under-performed in the league, yet when the opening round of the Munster round robin rolled around last weekend they quelled all doubts about their supposed demise. 

It was a fearsome dismantling of a Cork team that showed great promise in the spring. 

Waterford squeezed past Tipperary to the tune of four points and an altogether different challenge now awaits them. They head into the lion’s den knowing the scale of the mountain they must scale. 

Since 2020, the Deise lost their three championship games against Limerick by an accumulative 26 points. Liam Cahill’s team will feel they’ve vastly improved since last summer’s All-Ireland semi-final, plus the return of Tadhg de Burca has greatly strengthened their hand.

Aside from the two points on offer, there is nothing material at stake this weekend. But even though no provincial or All-Ireland title will be handed out, it’s a game of huge importance for Waterford. 

They must show the gap between the teams is closing. In the third year of Cahill’s reign, they need to make a statement of intent and throw everything at the defending champions.

They must quell all linger doubts that the Treaty are still a level above the rest. 

Following their impressive run to the Division 1 title, Waterford were widely praised and talked up as Limerick’s biggest rivals for the Liam MacCarthy. Their gameplan, a mix of running power and scoring threat, in addition to a savage work-rate that is the hallmark of all Cahill-managed teams.

He filled out his panel impressively during the league, causing Anthony Daly to declare it as the strongest squad in the country. That may have raised a few eyebrows in Limerick, but the Clare legend had a point.

Cahill spread minutes around the panel, using 33 players while Jamie Barron, Peter Hogan and Ian Kenny didn’t see a minute of action. He gave significant game-time to highly-rated prospect Cathrach Daly, and Waterford were able to go a large part of the league without the ace marksman Dessie Hutchinson due to his Ballygunner commitments. 

The importance of a strong bench impact has never been more relevant with round-robin formats in the provincial championships.

Both Limerick and Waterford must contend with a six-day turnaround from their opening round wins. However, no two counties are better placed to deal with the heavy load over the coming weeks.

Consider the subs introduced by both sides at the weekend.

Cahill called on former Hurler of the Year Austin Gleeson, three-time All-Star Jamie Barron, Shane Bennett who started the 2017 All-Ireland final, Iarlaith Daly who came on in the first-half of the 2020 All-Ireland and Peter Hogan, winner of an All-Ireland club crown in February. 

Among the unused subs were Pauric Mahony and Kieran Bennett, both of whom have experience of starting All-Ireland deciders.

In not appealing Gleeson’s red card for the league final, Cahill sent out a message. Waterford can little afford petulant dismissals at the business end of the championship. By leaving the Mount Sion star out of the starting line-up for the Tipperary game, Cahill has Gleeson exactly where he wants him. 

He faces a major decision this weekend whether to throw both Gleeson and Barron into the fray from the start. The Deise can little afford to give away the initiative by keeping two of their best players on the bench against the top side in the country, although fitness may be an issue for Barron.

paul-flanagan-and-pat-ryan Pat Ryan gives Limerick firepower off the bench. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Competition for places is the hallmark of any great side and Limerick are no different. 

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Last Sunday, Cork they introduced Cathal O’Neill, David Reidy, Oisin O’Reilly, Conor Boylan and Pat Ryan. Richie English, who started the 2018 All-Ireland final, wasn’t used off the bench. Young star Colin Coughlan didn’t feature, which allowed him stay eligible for the U20 team. 

By the time Seamus Flanagan and Peter Casey return from injury, Kiely will have so many options. Flanagan is reportedly set to return for the Clare game in round 3, with Casey targeting the end of May for his comeback.

Mike Casey returned from a lengthy absence to play a key role against the Rebels and it allowed Limerick push Barry Nash up to wing-back and Kyle Hayes into the full-forward line. 

Hayes, scorer of 1-1, had such a major impact at 14 that there’s no guarantee Flanagan will come straight back into the team. The versatility of Hayes means he can play anywhere from the half-back line up.

Hayes has been battling a hamstring injury and won’t be part of the squad tomorrow, with Boylan replacing him.

Once Hayes, Flanagan and Casey return, the competition for places will intensify. 

None of that trio will feature against Waterford, but Pat Ryan’s performance as a sub against Cork makes him a viable option off the bench once again.

Cathal O’Neill clipped two excellent scores and he’ll probably be used as a regular impact sub during the summer. Kiely will be hoping both O’Neill and Ryan give Limerick an attacking impetus in the final quarter once again.

If the game is close at that stage, it may come down to which side has the more effective bench press.

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About the author:

Kevin O'Brien

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