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Comment & Analysis | Sport

Why have Limerick lost their bite?

Limerick-Dub-NBUT for a red card to Dublin’s Paul Ryan, we might be talking about a Limerick team in trouble.

That might seem a little odd after two wins from two but 27 minutes into their third League game, they were stretching at the coat tails of a 0-8 to 0-2 deficit and coughing up goal chances with regularity.

Dublin passed on them and Ryan’s dismissal precipitated an easy win by the end, though a six-point victory papers over the prevailing cracks.

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The second quarter of Limerick’s opening win against Antrim — when they went seven points down — might well go down as the least underwhelming period of play that a Treaty County team has produced in some time, including that spell when Justin McCarthy’s shadow team wore the colours.

To score just five times in the first half of their second League game against Carlow was another indication that not all was well. Admittedly, those five scores (3-2) added up to 11 points but the Barrowsiders really ought to be cannon fodder for Limerick.

The performance against Dublin was for a long time a continuation of this trend. The Dubs put themselves in a corner with that 51st-minute red and Limerick pounded them from then on in, outscoring the Croke Park hosts 1-08 to 0-3 in the final 20 minutes or thereabout. That Anthony Daly continued to play an extra man deep, thus outnumbering his own forwards four to six, was no doubt a factor as the Treaty backs could also stand up to deliver good ball down the field.

Manager John Allen admitted afterwards that his side won none of the primary ball and none of the breaks in the first 25 minutes, and were lucky to be just 0-8 to 0-2 behind. The Corkman tried to put a positive spin on what was largely a flat performance, perhaps in an attempt to instil confidence in his camp.

“Everybody expected us to beat Antrim and everybody expected us to beat Carlow,” Allen said. “We prepared like we prepared for [Saturday] really; there was no difference, we just didn’t perform as well. Antrim were quite good, Carlow were quite good and they could have earned a draw at the end of the last game.

“So at the time when you’re working with a team and seeing how well they’re doing in training, and how well they’re doing in the gym, and how well they’re doing with their eating programmes and such, you’re waiting for it to transfer onto the field and I would say [Saturday] was the first day it transferred onto the field.”

Yes they won well but, if his team harbours ambitions of making a championship impact this summer, we would hope there is a lot more in them — particularly when against 15 men. The question is why are Limerick not showing their customary bite right now?

 One theory is that playing in the second tier does nothing to whet the appetite of a county that has sometimes found it routine at this level. Clare beat them down the stretch in last year’s 1B final but it was clear that Allen’s men had been better than the rest at this level and that had also been the case before his reign, when Donal O’Grady got them promoted in 2011. The sting in the tail being that the league was restructured for 2012 and the team was demoted, without fair trial.

Having proved to be too good for this level, they were told to stay put. No wonder O’Grady had enough but those who remained must deal with it and get out of this division. The men in green won eight of eight league games in 2011 and lost two of six — both against Clare — in 2012. Maybe they are progressively finding it harder to bring it to the boil for games against sides they feel they should be beating.

Dublin are certainly not a team Limerick would take lightly, indeed you would feel that this was the one 1B fixture that should have fired up the Treaty. After all, that 2011 All-Ireland quarter-final defeat was a game that they left behind them, and should be sore about. Limerick snatched at shots that day and it would be fair to blame some of their rustiness on the fall-out from the McCarthy era. While there were also plenty of fresh faces brought on board back then — Kevin Downes being one — that were only maturing, one would now expect them to take these games by the scruff of the neck.

The Na Piarsaigh man — unlike many teammates — actually did on Saturday and showed plenty of his quality, as did the sublime Declan Hannon and the lightning quick Graeme Mulcahy. In the latter’s case, he exemplified the difference between the sides when he took the force of Alan Nolan’s hurley —broken off him — to score a goal, in contrast to Paul Ryan who had attempted a meek flick in a similar situation during the first half.

If that was a difference, there was an interesting similarity between the teams: both used traditionally defensive players at centre-forward. Johnny McCaffrey has been an extra defender or midfielder and you wonder if he is better suited to a deeper role after his one point from four clear chances. We accept that Daly is looking to add steel and grit to his forward line but, even if you defend from the front, you have to be able to score up there too. McCaffrey is not a man Daly ever seems to want out of the action and it was notable that his replaced his captain with 12 minutes to go.

Limerick’s Seamus Hickey was Young Hurler of the Year in 2007 as a back and now he is working hard up front, but never looked like scoring as he missed his only two chances against Dublin. Last year Brian Geary, previously a centre-back, was tried out at 11 and with underwhelming results. The question is what does Allen want from an 11.

Perhaps Hannon is the best option, and his manager did point out after the game that the Adare man has as much hurling as anyone in the country. A penny for the thoughts of Niall Moran, so impressive last year, who sat on the bench in the first half as a defender lined out in attack.

 Then other sides seem to want to attack from the back. Cork started Pa Cronin at centre-back against Clare and, as the game wore on, it was clear that he was needed up the field. There he went, eventually, after the ship had sailed in the Banner’s six-point win. Will the same happen with forward-turned-defender Liam Rushe, after Dublin’s most important figure disappeared from the Limerick game in the second half at number six?

There are plenty of questions at this time of year. Does it matter that Cork have started three different men at number six — Cronin, Christopher Joyce and Lorcan McLoughlin — in their three games? We don’t yet know, but it didn’t matter that they changed their full-back five times running during the middle of 2012. Will converted centre-forwards remain when the doggedness of the year gives way to firm ground? We expect so, for any team whose mindset is to go out to win rather than not lose.

Limerick’s mindset has lacked lustre up until now but a flattering win may spur them on. They may yet meet Dublin in the 1B final — plenty can change between now and then.



Shane Stapleton is the Irish Post's GAA hurling columnist. Follow Shane on Twitter @shanesaint

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