THE gap between league and championship is never easy to close but we will get a fair idea of how Limerick have managed it next Sunday when they face old rivals Clare in Thurles.
The championship road is a great degree harder but experience has shown that Limerick on any given day can match the best of teams. The prize for either Limerick or Clare is massive.
A place in the Munster final would be a major step forward but also a spot secured in the All-Ireland quarter final. Limerick didn’t have a good National League and supporters will be keen to see how the team have developed since failing badly to Galway in the league semi-final. Championship offers no place to hide and excuses count for little at games end.
Limerick have had a difficult few years now in the Munster championship and the game locally needs to see a Limerick team challenging and doing well. Clare now under new management just about did enough to hold league status.
They didn’t put in a huge amount of winter work but over the past two months they have put in a savage effort. I think most people are expecting Limerick to perform on Sunday and if they do then we could be set for a cracking game in the field of dreams.
Their task has been made a bit more difficult with Diarmuid Byrnes not starting and other injuries but they have coped in recent weeks without these players.
Historically games between Limerick and Clare are close but in recent times the banner lads have had an edge. Clare would be seen as favourites. They have a lot of quality players that can have a huge influence on a game.
Limerick will have a fair bit of insider knowledge as they have Paul Kinnerk and Alan Cunningham as part of the management team.
That must stand for something but Limerick will need to bring their 'A' game to really trouble Clare.
Cork brought a huge level of pace and movement when they beat Tipperary and I would expect Clare will bring something similar next Sunday. I saw first hand what their pace did to Dublin in the second half of the Division 1 play off and I would expect it will be a great deal sharper on Sunday.
In recent times Clare were less direct but that style of play didn’t suit some of their forwards. It will be different on Sunday. They will hit players like Conor McGrath, John Conlon and Tony Kelly with fast ball and for that reason the Limerick backs would not only need to be sharp but they will also need support.
Curtailing the supply will mean that the Limerick forwards must work very hard. The Clare defence must not be given options when on the ball, otherwise it will make the job of the Limerick defence all the more difficult.
The manor of the Limerick challenge will have a big part to play in this game. If they come with hunger and passion then they will make life difficult for Clare. Limerick will need to send a signal early.
They will need to take the game to Clare and try to put them on the back foot. It will be important that Limerick play with a controlled edge to their game. Giving away silly frees or picking up early yellow cards will not aid Limericks chances.
No matter what way I look at it the game to me will be won and lost on how we control the Clare forward line.
The Limerick defence was under pressure in the league and if they have corrected matters at this end and have a plan in place to close Clare down then they will have a chance of causing an upset.
The Limerick backline might be Finn, McCarthy, Casey, Hickey, Hannon and I would think Gavin O’Mahony will start now that Diarmuid Byrnes is out.
That group of players will have a big job to do and we know Clare are going to drag them wide and make space inside.
Championship offers hope and on any given day a big win is possible. For Limerick this game provides a great opportunity to make a statement. A statement that we are going in the right direction.
Hurling in the county needs this sort of a lift. The support base for county teams is falling and it will take a win such as Sunday to get some of them back on the road. Confidence is low, but one win can change the outlook very quickly.
Limerick have played a few challenge games in the lead up to next Sunday but what if any use they have been won't be really known until then. Paul Browne and James Ryan will be at midfield. Gearoid Hegarty was injured last week and might be a non starter.
If that is the case the forward-line might be along these lines, Dowling, Cian Lynch, Dempsey, Casey, Hayes and Barry Nash. If Nash is in the corner I would think he will do a fair bit of his hurling around the half forward line.
They have put up big scores in challenge games but to me such challenges provide little enough science as to how it might be on big match day.
Most of the pressure is on Clare going into Sundays game. They are the more experienced team and they will feel they have unfinished business.
The players took a stand and they will be expected to take the responsibility for that decision.
There is no doubt that Clare have proven match winners. If they get on a roll they have the ability to cause real pain for Limerick.
If Limerick can soak up the early pressure then they will ask questions of Clare. Some lads will be making their maiden voyage in the championship and it’s important that Limerick has good support in the stands.
While Clare have quality forwards they do have some problems in defence. Limerick will need to take them on and the high ball has troubled Clare before.
In the league Limerick played a short hand passing game.
Will that type of game work on Sunday? I don’t think so. Direct play will reap most reward and I hope Limerick have the confidence to express that on Sunday.
Limerick teams in the past proved difficult to beat when they played with energy and passion. Yes they will be short a few players but others will have to stand up to the challenge.