IT would have been a optimistic and brave Limerick GAA supporter that predicted an All Ireland MHC final appearance back on April 6 after the opening round Munster MHC tie with Clare.
Limerick advanced in that provincial quarter final tie but it was anything but a memorable display in the Gaelic Grounds.
But it was the launchpad for the Road to Croker.
“I would have taken the two hands off you!” said Limerick manager of a place in the All Ireland final from the outset of the season.
Changes in personnel and positions followed that round one game and five months later Limerick appear in just an eighth ever All Ireland minor hurling final.
Credit management of Pat Donnelly, selectors Brian Foley and John Mulqueen, hurling coach Anthony Daly and strength and conditioning coach Mikey Kiely the development of the team is clear to see.
And, first and foremost the minor grade is about development. Four successive years have now seen Limerick involved in the All Ireland series on the back of reaching successive Munster finals. The harsh reality of suffering an early exit saw Clare end their year on May 4 – four months extra training for Limerick is a massive bonus.
But for all that, Sunday is about collecting the Irish Press Cup for just the fourth time – 1940, ‘58 and ‘84. The last two visits to the final (2005 and 2014) have ended in defeat so perhaps third time lucky on Sunday.
No one denies the challenge game
Opponents Tipperary are returning to a final they lost last year. They arrive on the back of a 17-point Munster final win over Limerick and after crushing champions Galway with a seven goal blast in the semi final.
But it’s a position that may just suit Limerick, who now appear to have finally found their best starting 15 and best formation.
For the manager there is no talk of silverware but merely performance.
”I would just say to the lads give it what you have; perform, perform, perform - that is all we ask. No need to do anything else only perform and we didn’t do that in the Munster final. We have played five matches and we won four and we didn’t turn up in the fifth, which just happened to be the Munster final.”
Donnelly’s mantra since last October’s trial games has never changed – “work” he repeats time after time.
“I think there is real character in these players. I think the players realise that they have to have character, they have to have guts, they have to have determination, they have to do all that - the sum of all that is what will bring us success on September 4 if we are going to get it.”
In all five games Limerick have set up with a sweeper system. It appears Ciaran O’Connor is now the man to fill that extra role and certainly in the semi final win over Dublin Limerick appeared very comfortable in the system. But it also means just five forwards and consequently Limerick have scored goals in just two games. Just once since the turn of the millennium has the All Ireland MHC final been won without scoring a goal.
The Munster final result means that Limerick will need to find early form to banish any lingering doubts. The teenagers must match their opponents in the opening quarter and ask questions of a Tipperary side that to be honest haven’t had a real test since their Munster semi final win over Cork back in late June.
To be fair this looks a very strong Tipperary team but all connected with Limerick were correct when describing their Munster final outing as a “no show”. Limerick’s team will show subtle changes from that outing and should strengthen their hand.
Tipperary have star players across the field but the Limerick strength is in numbers.
“All through the last five years there hasn’t been too much between any of the teams so it was about who would get the structures right, get things in place and work hard and then you always had a chance,” explains Donnelly, who has been involved with some of this panel since their U-14 days.
While this side have never been far off the mark there was no silverware throughout their Academy years.
Sunday can change that.
”Our philosophy from the outset was to work hard - we won’t have superstars in this team and I don’t mean to be derogatory to any of the lads. They are a team, from 1-32, you can switch them in and out and we would be happy. They are a work-man-like team,” Donnelly said last April.
Sunday they can become superstars if all goes according to plan and each and every player hits their top gear on the biggest day in the hurling calendar.
LIMERICK PANEL: Mark O’Kelly (Croom); Brian Nash (South Liberties), Conor Nicholas (Monaleen), Finn Hourigan (Murroe-Boher); Michael O’Grady (Knockainey), Josh Adams (Ballybrown), Brian Timmons (Murroe-Boher); Brian Ryan (South Liberties), Cal McCarthy (Kilmallock); Darragh Carroll (Newport), Cian Magner Flynn (Killeedy) David Woulfe (Kilmallock); Conor Boylan (Na Piarsaigh), Kyle Hayes (Kildimo-Pallaskenry), Paul O’Brien (Mungret St Pauls), Jamie Power (Monaleen), Anthony Barrett (Kilmallock), Michael Bourke (Garryspillane), Ronan Connolly (Adare), Martin Farrell (Blackrock), John Flynn (Patrickswell), Aaron Kennedy (Murroe-Boher), Ciaran O’Connor (Kilmallock), Paul O’Riordan (Bruff), Ciarán Barry (Ahane), Jerome Boylan (Na Piarsaigh), Jamie Dillon (Patrickswell), Conor Flahive (Mungret), Dan Minehan (Ahane), Shane Normoyle (Monagea), Mark O’Dwyer (Monaleen) Conor O’Grady (Hospital-Herbertstown), Darren Golden O’Mahony (Monaleen); Willie O’Meara (Askeaton).