Jerome O’Connell looks forward to Limerick’s Allianz Hurling League Division 1B campaign.
THE third annual race for league promotion kicks-off next Sunday for the Limerick senior hurlers.
It is now 2010 since Limerick last played among the elite of the league and of course on that occasion the Justin McCarthy managed side were relegated without a win.
Although there is a potential schedule of six games ahead of Limerick to reclaim a place at the top table, it could be that Limerick’s ‘promotion’ could be helped by a vote at the GAA Annual Congress on March 22-23.
At the national meeting proposals will come before the county delegates to implement a 10th change in league structure since 1997. Indeed ‘97 was the last time that Limerick won the league proper when Tom Ryan’s Limerick were 1-12 to 1-9 winners over Galway in the final in Cusack Park.
2014 LEAGUE PROPOSALS
One of the options that will be voted upon would see a return to an eight team Division One.
This would mean that both the finalists in this year’s Division 1B final would be promoted for next season and there would be no relegation from Division 1A this season.
Of course this would mean that Limerick need to finish in the top two this season but at least it gives a greater possibility of promotion and makes for a most interesting seven-game structure for 2014.
The possibility of playing the seven top counties in league action would be of enormous benefit to Limerick and greater heighten the early season profile of hurling in the county.
JOB AT HAND
Regardless of what might happen in the boardroom, Limerick’s target is simple.
They need to finish in the top two in the six-team Division 1B and therefore qualify for the April 7 league final.
As it stands only the winner of the final will gain promotion.
The winner will also progress to play in the knockout stages of the league proper.
That means that Limerick will most likely be only able to suffer one loss and perhaps a draw to finish in the top two.
Of course the target will be to win all five games and top the group - as Limerick did back in 2011.
The schedule of games sees Limerick enjoy home comforts in the two opening rounds of games.
Indeed three of the five games are at home.
The opening two games are must-win encounters with Antrim and then Carlow visiting.
Nothing other than four points will do from these games and that should set Limerick up for three intense battles in three successive weeks.
The vital trio of games kicks-off in Croke Park on Saturday evening March 16 against Anthony Daly’s Dublin.
If there is to be a drawback from the sequence of games it is that Limerick will have faced two of the lesser lights of the group in the opening two games.
That will add to the occasion on March 16 as not only will many be playing in GAA headquarters for the first time but Limerick could be meeting one of their main promotion rivals without a real ‘high-tempo’ game.
The sequence of games also means that in three successive weekends Limerick will face their three main rivals and will need to be on top of their game each time.
Dublin, Offaly and Wexford will all face one of the lesser lights during their hectic schedule.
After the Croke Park game, the following Sunday its off to Tullamore to manage the Ollie Baker led Offaly.
The round robin series ends in the Gaelic Grounds against Liam Dunne’s Wexford in the Gaelic Grounds.
The five opponents for John Allen’s Limerick played a total of 14 championship games in 2012 - winning just four games.
Limerick played five games last season - beating Antrim, Laois and Clare.
Antrim and Carlow registered no championship win in 2012, while Dublin (beat Laois), Offaly (beat Wexford) and Wexford (beat Carlow and Westmeath).
Dublin come into the league bidding to reverse last season’s relegation, while Carlow are the side that were promoted up from Division 2A.
Offaly, Wexford and Antrim all renew league rivalries with Limerick just as they did in 2012.
Twelve months ago the big question mark surrounded the central spine of the Limerick defence.
Now as Limerick enter into 2013 there is no doubt that John Allen, John Kiely and Eamon Meskell have favoured a very familiar unit from 1-7 - Nickie Quaid; Stephen Walsh, Richie McCarthy, Tom Condon; Wayne McNamara, Donal O’Grady and Gavin O’Mahony.
What is key is that real alternatives emerge for all these places and that all of the seven feel under pressure for their places.
Newcomers Alan Dempsey, Pat Begley, Cathal King, Paudie Ahern as well as Shane O’Neill, Tom Ryan, Mark Carmody and of course Seamus Hickey and perhaps Declan Hannon are the other defensive options.
Nailing down a starting role for Hickey will be intruiging.
To-date in 2013, Hickey has been tried at centre forward.
From 8-15 is all very much up for grabs.
Paudie O’Brien, James Ryan, Conor Allis, Paul Browne, Seamus Hickey, Paudie Ahern and Donal O’Grady are all midfield options.
In attack the quest is to mould a sextet that gels.
Form is everything in attack.
If fitness, form and attitude are all correct it would appear that Declan Hannon, Graeme Mulcahy, Shane Dowling, Niall Moran would be in the driving seat for starting places.
Sean Tobin, David Breen and Kevin Downes are also now experienced championship attackers.
Already that is seven players for six places.
Seamus Hickey, Conor Allis, Thomas Quaid, Mark Carmody and newcomers David Reidy and Adrian Breen will also come into the frame for what is a most competitive area of the field.
Getting the correct mix is vital and it will be interesting to see if management continue with the experiment of Hickey at centre forward. This is somewhat akin to Ollie Moran in 2007, albeit he had some previous experience in attack.
Getting to the Division 1B final is paramount and then it all boils down to a 70-minute final to ensure promotion.
Limerick have reached the last two finals and in a way this has proved a timely test ahead of championship.
The Dublin game in Croke Park will be a huge test, akin to the Clare games of the last two years.
Defeat in that game would leave little room for error against Offaly and Wexford.
Of course there will always be the one shock result in the league - Antrim beating Wexford last season - and Limerick need to be awake to this.
Getting a championship win of some note (over Clare) last season was important for the development of this Limerick team.
And, performances against Tipperary and Kilkenny had much to admire. Building on those performances is vital in preparation for the Munster SHC v Tipp on June 9.
But there would be no better pre-championship confidence boost than promotion back among the elite of inter-county hurling.