THE National League has once again been a most sobering experience for Limerick hurling.
Indeed Limerick appear back at the same point of 12 months ago - stumbling from a lacklustre league towards a daunting championship challenge.
Of course, a year ago John Allen and management worked the oracle to bring Limerick from outsiders to Munster champions.
But last August in Croke Park (loss to Clare), last month in Tullamore (draw with Offaly) and last Sunday in the Gaelic Grounds (loss to Galway) have brought all involved with Limerick hurling back down to earth with a bang.
Just like last year, Limerick have much to do in the months of April and May with a schedule of challenge games and in-house trial games needed to finalise plans for June 1 in Semple Stadium.
On and off the field, there is much work to be done.
After six games of league action, attempting to establish what starting championship team management may have in mind would appear futile.
They gave starts to 26 different players in the course of the six league contests with just Tom Condon, Paudie O’Brien and Wayne McNamara playing every minute of every game.
Yes experimentation was needed and unearthing new players is the quest of every county during the league.
Not helping the cause of management were long term injuries to Seamus Hickey, Declan Hannon and David Breen, who would all benefit from nailing down a regular position.
There is no doubting that a lack of clear media communication from management did not help supporters understand some selection choices. Twice there was confusion surrounding the availability of Na Piarsaigh players, while the appearance or non-appearances of players like Richie McCarthy, Declan Hannon, Tom Ryan and Stephen Walsh also raised unnecessary eye-brows and perhaps could have been explained clearly by management.
About the only certainty appears to be the half back trio of Paudie O’Brien, Wayne McNamara and Gavin O’Mahony look to remain in situ. Not for the first time the half forward line selection will be key, with claiming primary ball from puckouts the perennial problem.
Limerick only used 20 players in the 2013 championship. Four of those (Hannon, Hickey, Breen and Moran) didn’t start in the league, meaning that 10 new faces were given a chance to impress.
Conor Allis and David Reidy appeared to have done best while Philip O’Loughlin, Mark Carmody and Cathal King also got more than one start.
Certainly the form of some of the stars of last summer has dipped but those to impress most this spring were Paul Browne, James Ryan, Tom Condon and Wayne McNamara.
Much has been made of a return to the ‘short style’.
It certainly does appear that players have been told that the management preference is to ‘go short’ rather than deliver long aimless balls into attack. But just like 2011, this style does not appear to rest easy on the shoulders of all Limerick players.
Last Summer against Tipperary and Cork Limerick hurling was seen at it’s best when all hurled fast first time ball into the attack.
But in recent weeks, moans have been audible in the stands as players passed flat across the field or often backwards. To be fair if done at pace this can help manufacture space and opportunities but what has been seen to date has been too slow and often looks out of duress rather than for creative reasons.
Last Sunday in the second half collapse against Galway another tactic that back fired was the withdrawal of players into midfield. Galway anchored Iarla Tannion at centre back for the entire game and often used midfielder Johnny Coen to pick up Limerick centre forward James Ryan. Time after time, especially in the second half, Limerick ball into attack was mopped up at ease by Galway, who often appeared to have four defenders to two Limerick attackers.
Surprisingly there was no attempt to counter attack, even when the game was fast moving away from Limerick in the second half.
To be fair Limerick, despite a series of sluggish performances, had put themselves in a good position to finally climb back into the top tier.
But, and not for the first time, Offaly were the stumbling block.
It says a lot about the quality in the second tier that Limerick could afford to be below par and still come within minutes of promotion. Therein is the first of many reasons that top flight action in the Spring in necessary.
Next year Waterford, Wexford, Laois, Antrim and Offaly/Carlow/Kerry will provide the league opposition. Fixtures will be key with possible trips to Wexford and Antrim not easy.
Regardless it won’t be akin to the games between Clare, Kilkenny, Tipperary, Galway, Cork and Dublin in the top flight.
As it stands defending champions Limerick are fourth favourites to claim Munster honours. To be honest that looks fair.
This time last year, expectation wasn’t high after the league final loss to Dublin but the panel proved their doubters wrong. Limerick again need to rise from the ashes.
Fitness looks an issue for some players, with others looking heavy-legged. That can be solved in the next eight weeks.
With the arrival of the long evenings, it is now that the coaching of Donal O’Grady should come to the forefront.
It does look like mistakes have been made but the reality is that success or failure will be judged on the championship.
Tipperary will be hurting from June 9 2013. While time is on Limerick’s side, nothing short of the best will do in Thurles.
The countdown begins with a return to training this Thursday. The next planned outing is a challenge game against Cork in Charlevile on April 26.