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Cat's eyes Henry Shefflin spies ‘irritation’ in Limerick but is hearing no alarm bells just yet

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Kilkenny legend Henry Shefflin pictured at the launch of the Allianz League Legends series. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Kilkenny legend Henry Shefflin pictured at the launch of the Allianz League Legends series. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Kilkenny legend Henry Shefflin pictured at the launch of the Allianz League Legends series. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

From the perfect year to the implausible. After three rounds of the Allianz Hurling League, only a pointless Westmeath separate Limerick from rock bottom in the Division 1 Group A table.

Proclaimed by many as champions who could not be beaten in 2021, John Kiely’s men have morphed into a team that, right now, cannot win.

Henry Shefflin, who knows more about winning than any other player, former or current, has seen signs of “irritation” in Limerick’s opening league salvos but is quick to stress that there is no crisis afoot in the Treaty camp.

The Kilkenny legend still views them as favourites this summer, with Galway second in the pecking order and a select few just behind, among them his native Cats.

But he reckons they are playing catch-up compared to last season, when they won 13 from 13, incorporating the pre-season Munster Senior League, a pre-Covid league and then, belatedly, championship.

And this may explain why they have endured three games without a win (drawing with Tipperary, losing to Galway and Waterford) or even some of their recent irascibility over how they are being refereed and the focus on their tackling.

“I just think there’s a little bit of irritation with what’s taking place for Limerick,” Shefflin surmises, speaking at yesterday’s launch of the Allianz League Legends series.

“Last year we had the lockdown as well, but Limerick had won the Munster League at that stage, had a very good pre-season under their belts. They took a break and, by all accounts, took a big break during the summer and came back refreshed – but they had a strong base under them.

“This year, I don’t think they have that base,” he continues. “Seán Finn, for example, said he didn’t pick up a hurl until early April so if that’s the way, I think they’re a little bit behind where the other teams are.

“All the other teams have trained very, very hard. You can see that in the conditioning of all the players across both codes. So you’re a little bit off and teams are mad to take you down and they’re really tearing into Limerick – and that’s causing that bit of irritation because you might be that little second slower in doing that tackle or leaving your hand in that little bit longer into the tackle, and because of that Limerick are getting penalised.”

Back in his own playing pomp, as a medal magnet with a ferociously competitive team, Shefflin was no stranger to hearing talk that Kilkenny were officiated differently than everyone else. But he “never really felt the referees were against us”, even if he can remember all the media attention and sometimes wondering if “Jesus, they’re out to get us”/

“But then you quickly realise people are just talking about you because you’re high-profile, you’re winning competitions. And then you realise, look, you can use it as a motivation.”

For Limerick, both the motivation and the focus are abundantly clear: the league can take a back seat because it’s all about chasing back-to-back All-Irelands.

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“We can’t go on a couple of games in the league,” Shefflin stresses. “This year is a little bit different but they are the form team and when they have all those players and they’re rotating, bringing in Gearóid Hegarty or someone, the impact these players are having is massive.

“So when we put them all together and put the jigsaw together, I think they will be very, very strong.”

And their nearest pretender?

“I would rank Galway next, but I think Kilkenny are very much there,” he says.

Shefflin cites several reasons for his relative optimism: the enduring brilliance of TJ Reid, some changes both in Brian Cody’s backroom and the team itself, and the “bit of freshness to their play” as they swatted aside Wexford last Sunday.

The same Wexford who, barring a Leinster quarter-final shock against Laois, will face the Cats again this summer.

“Psychologically it was (a boost) that they won well. It wasn’t a scrappy game. I think Kilkenny had a great variety in their play.

“They seem to have figured out Wexford’s sweeper system and the way they play through the lines – for the first time, where they really cracked it,” the 10-time All-Ireland winner enthuses.

“All these psychological doubts creep in (but) the meltdowns against Dublin last year and against Waterford in the semi-final are very much in the rear-view mirror,” concluded Shefflin.

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