They’re the two teams Kilkenny ultimately overcame to cruise to the last couple of All-Irelands. But when Waterford and Limerick lock horns in Semple Stadium this Sunday the connection will undeniably be about one man only. Justin.
It was almost inevitable that the counties would be paired together when the draws were made last October. Just as it’s ironic that Justin McCarthy’s last stand as Waterford manager should have been in Limerick.
That gasping-hot Sunday at the Gaelic Grounds ‘McCarthy’s men’, by their actions, hinted that he had lost the dressing-room.
Afterwards man-of-the-match John Mullane questioned his team-mates’ courage for going down against Clare without a fight. But they were patently a team whose hearts and minds weren’t ready for battle.
The players knew they were literally fit for nothing for starters. McCarthy’s methods (presumably aiming at an extended season, seeing as they’d understandably run out of steam in 2007), along with the personal issues that had festered over the previous months, and in some cases a lot longer, left the players with a seven-year itch that they couldn’t scratch.
He’s since said he got them to ‘overachieve’; they respect all he did for them. Still not seeing eye to eye.
So what will McCarthy have brought to Limerick? The major thing, specifically relating to this initial championship clash, is the keenest inside knowledge of Waterford.
He’ll know the players he’s up against this Sunday better than anyone, Davy Fitzgerald included: their strong points and their faults.
While he’ll insist, naturally, that he’s solely focusing on his own team, you can be certain he’ll adapt their gameplan to what he sees as Waterford’s strengths and weaknesses.
He’ll also know the chinks in Limerick’s armour that he targeted when with Waterford.
Presumably McCarthy will have got a handle on the ‘refuelling problems’ his predecessor Richie Bennis hinted at before he was let go.
Justin was a stickler for off-field discipline from the moment he set foot in Waterford (though it may have been an indicator of his waning influence that some players felt able to take more liberties towards the end).
On taking up the Treaty job a mere four months after leaving the last one, McCarthy cautioned: “There is no short cut to success. I will have the passion for the job, but we will need to be organised in so many ways – the physical well-bring, hurling skills, attitude all come into it. I want the players to play to their potential and that’s what is important. I will want every player to take it up a notch or two.”
He insisted that “with the right changes, we can make headway. Limerick are there or thereabouts and can make a breakthrough.”
However, coaching-wise, where he’s in his element, Justin will have his work cut out to make the Limerick hurlers of 2009 any better than the ones that reached the All-Ireland final against Kilkenny 19 months ago, and, in hindsight, didn’t perform badly on the day.
That’s because they’re basically the same team: long on experience, high on mileage. Scoring in sufficient numbers remains their Achilles heel. He might be able to finesse their hurleys a certain way, but McCarthy can’t put the ball over or under the bar for them.
Going on their form this year, there’s little between the teams on paper. Both won three and lost four in the National League, Limerick getting the better of Waterford when they met on Shannonside.
McCarthy and his selectors Brian Ryan and Liam Garvey gave league action to 29 players, but Waterford would seem to have unearthed more potential first-teamers over the spring to go with their superior collection of established campaigners.
With an unprecedented pre-season behind them, you’d think Waterford should also have an edge in terms of sharpness, having come through three subsequent rounds of club championship matches, and a couple in the football series, relatively unscathed.
Several players were involved in both and Gary Hurney and Shane Walsh joined up with the county footballers for their recent Munster championship defeat by Cork.
The Limerick club championship only got underway on Whit weekend, with McCarthy reportedly unhappy with the scheduling.
He has also had to contend with Stephen Lucey, Mark O’Riordan being part of Mickey Ned O’Sullivan’s side for last Sunday’s Munster semi-final victory over Clare, with the first two superb in Cusack Park.
Though they came through unscathed, and reaching the final will give the whole county a boost, the timing wasn’t ideal.
McCarthy’s plans also haven’t been helped by injury concerns hanging over 2007 Young Hurler of the Year Seamus Hickey (shoulder), centre-back Brian Geary, new full-forward David Breen, Mike Fitzgerald, Bryan O’Sullivan (all hamstrings) and centre-forward Mike O’Brien, who suffered two broken fingers while playing an intermediate championship game for Glenroe a month ago.
None of that lot played for their clubs over the June bank holiday weekend, nor were they available for the most recent challenge against Clare.
Fitness isn’t their only worry, with the results of recent challenges games doing little to help create collective confidence.
Individuals such as Stephen Molumphy’s army colleague Andrew O’Shaughnessy, who put Waterford to the sword in the 2007 All-Ireland semi, has been struggling for form this year, and one feels he’ll need to rediscover his “shocks” value quickly if Limerick are to do anything out of the very, very ordinary this summer.
Another key man is Limerick’s de facto leader Ollie Moran, who is “fairly sure” this is his 13th and last season with the county, and is desperate for a Munster winner’s medal.
Now 34, he won a National League under Tom Ryan in his first year (1997) but hasn’t seen any silverware since, losing two Munster finals and the All-Ireland decider two years ago when he was an inspirational All Star.
Having thought about retiring over the winter (Justin, his seventh manager with Limerick, is, he says, “a very persuasive guy”), he is not long back in competitive action, having been minding a long-term knee injury.
He’s hoping their 14-point “drubbing” by Cork in a challenge match in Castletownroche three weeks ago (in which Limerick scored 2-15 but conceded 1-32) “was the kick up the backside that maybe we needed” ahead of Sunday’s acid test in Semple Stadium, which hasn’t been a happy hunting ground for Limerick during Moran’s time.
Indeed, since Limerick beat Waterford there in 1997 (a result reversed two years later) they have failed to win on 12 subsequent championship trips to Thurles, losing 10 and drawing the others, including the 2003 provincial semi-final against the Decies.
Their defeats there in that time include the 1995 Munster final against Clare (remembered for Davy Fitz’s penalty) and Dan Shanahan’s hat-trick in the ’07 decider. Last year an error-strewn performance saw them beaten there by the Banner.
Also, team captain veteran Mark Foley’s Adare lost last year’s Munster club final to Waterford’s De La Salle.
Limerick are notoriously slow starters. It’s eight years since they won their opening championship match, beating Cork by a point in Páirc Uí Chaoimh before coming back from the dead to knock out Gerald McCarthy’s Waterford in the next round, also on Leeside.
By contrast, Waterford seem to love the place, scene of some of their most memorable displays since the 1998 breakthrough, and they have won their last three outings in Thurles.
Waterford will want to keep that sequence going and set up a provincial decider versus Tipp or Clare, most probably the Premier men on recent form, and Davy Fitz’ will hope it pans out that way for obvious reasons.
His more experienced Limerick counterpart mightn’t admit it, but such is its significance that Sunday is unfortunately as much about losing face as simply a match against familiar ones.