“WHAT an opportunity - we are 70 minutes away from an All Ireland final.”
The words of Limerick manager TJ Ryan minutes after the Wexford win set the tone perfectly for Sunday’s All Ireland SHC semi-final against Kilkenny.
It is a big opportunity for Limerick.
An opportunity to reach the September 7 All Ireland final against Cork or Tipperary.
An opportunity to write a new history and to banish some of the disappointing chapters of recent years.
Limerick players and management have stressed their desire to get credit for their achievements. Time after time Limerick appear to be overlooked by many pundits but then again all will accept that Croke Park is where All Ireland medals and All Stars are earned.
Limerick’s last championship win in GAA Headquarters was the August 12, 5-11 to 2-15 semi-final win over Waterford in 2007.
Clare, Waterford, Galway, Tipperary, Cork and Kilkenny have all won big games on Jones Road since that win for Richie Bennis’ side of seven years ago.
The last three championship visits to Croker were the 2007 final and semi-finals of 2009 and 2013 - all defeats.
But there is a different feeling about this Sunday.
Quietly confidence is growing in Limerick - although the bookies did nudge Limerick out from 2/1 to 9/4 early this week.
A lot of the national perception will be based on the past.
A past that shows this is the 15th time that Brian Cody has led Kilkenny into the All-Ireland semi-final since taking over as manager for the 1999 season. And, they have won twelve of the previous fourteen.
Last year was the only season they didn’t qualify for the semi-final under Cody.
Limerick did reach the semi-final last season and there is no denying it was a sobering experience for all concerned.
Since departing from beneath the Hogan Stand on August 18 last the Limerick players have wanted a return to this stage of the championship. But it’s not just a return that Limerick want - they want to make a statement with a performance that will make all sit up and take notice.
To be fair, Limerick arrive in Croke Park in an ideal situation.
They earned valuable big-match experience in Croke Park last year and that was also a day that will provide much motivation.
Aside from the entire occasion of 2013, there was also the big gap between games and the ‘hype’.
None of these three scenarios should be issues this time round.
In terms of match intensity, Limerick have played Cork (Munster final) and Wexford (All Ireland quarter final) since Kilkenny’s easy July 6 Leinster final win over Dublin.
Then there is the ‘hype’. Last year Limerick won a first Munster SHC title in 17 years and duly celebrated, particularly as both games enroute to that trophy were in the Gaelic Grounds.
Then of course the semi-final opponents were none other than Shannonside rivals, Clare. Over 25,000 from Limerick travelled to Croke Park on the back of weeks of euphoria. What happened against Davy Fitzgerald’s side will be debated for years to come but Limerick were flat.
All have vowed there will be no repeat.
And, form lines suggest there shouldn’t be.
Of course Brian Cody is more than familiar with bringing the Cats to Croker in fine fettle for August but Limerick have certainly had better tests along the way.
Kilkenny’s average score in their four championship games to date is 3-24 while Limerick have averaged 2-23.
What is clear is that Limerick’s defence will have to be at their best. In particular the half back trio of Paudie O’Brien, Wayne McNamara and Gavin O’Mahony. Kilkenny thrive on running into open space with fast, intelligent passes and Limerick can’t afford to have pop-passes and runners creating holes in the half back trio.
Of course attempting to select the Kilkenny starting 15 from upwards of 22 creditable options is near impossible.
At the other end of the field the Kilkenny full back line looks just as assured as Limerick’s defence trio.
But perhaps Limerick can make inroads with an unsettled Kilkenny half back line.
Only time will tell what tactics Limerick will adopt but to-date they have hurled their own game and not overly worried about the opposition.
If this is so the pace must be dictated from the off.
Limerick have the ability to win this one but to a man will need to perform.