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Friday 9 December 2016

Paul Ryan and Liam Rushe lead Dubs back from the brink

Breathless one-point win over Limerick in Thurles grants jubilant end to 'tough week' for Cunningham

11 July 2015; Dublin's Liam Rushe and Conal Keaney, 14, after the game. GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship, Round 2, Dublin v Limerick, Semple Stadium, Thurles, Co. Tipperary. Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
11 July 2015; Dublin's Liam Rushe and Conal Keaney, 14, after the game. GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship, Round 2, Dublin v Limerick, Semple Stadium, Thurles, Co. Tipperary. Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

EMBOLDENED, no doubt, by the mad theatre he had just witnessed, Ger Cunningham decided there and then in the tunnel in Semple Stadium that no-one would put restrictions on his team's seasonal aspirations.

"There's no minimum target," he stressed, when it was suggested that an All-Ireland quarter-final spot - the one his team had just mugged from Limerick - was a safe break-even point for his first season in charge of Dublin, one that threatened to derail and crash head-on at various stages on a dank Saturday evening in Thurles.

"Their ambition is to play in Croke Park in September in an All-Ireland final, to win an All-Ireland.

"So there's no minimum target of a quarter-final of an All-Ireland."

An hour previous, he'd have killed for it.

Eight points down. Limerick growing. Dublin shrinking.

Their inadequacies and fears and all the other bad stuff that hovered around them since Galway tanned their hides in Tullamore were there in full frontal view. Mikey Carton leaving the panel midweek. Criticism from within the small cabal of Dublin hurling aficionados.

It all seemed to be applying downward pressure on Dublin's slumping shoulders as Limerick - not exactly whistling Dixie themselves in the preamble to Saturday - gradually figured that they more closely resembled a good team than their opponents.

"It's been a tough week," Cunningham admitted.

"I'm absolutely delighted. It looked like the week was going to continue like that in the first half being eight points down.

"But I thought the lads showed unbelievable character in the second half. The couple of scores before half-time were crucial in getting us back to four points down.

"We were still there in the game. We got a bit of momentum early in the second half and we got some great scores.

"And again, I thought the lads showed great character to dig deep again. It's knock-out. It's Championship. It's what it's all about."

Now?

Such is the unpredictability of this Dublin team, you couldn't count on them not to do something awful or brilliant in the All-Ireland series.

But the force of their will on Saturday night was so bluntly apparent, they must fancy investigating this summer a little beyond the quarter-final.

A mixture of some epic individual displays and perhaps, the motivational force of experiencing that losing feeling once too often in the past was enough.

Just.

"Yeah, we seemed to be struggling early on," Cunningham said, understating with wild abandon.

"We took our time. Fumbling a bit of ball. We took a while to get our momentum.

"But I thought once we settled, we got some ... we would encourage the guys to use the ball, use the best ball that's on.

"But I thought some of the scores Paul Ryan put over were absolutely magnificent. I think they were so good it lifted the whole team."

Anyone who has watched the career of the aforementioned Ballyboden St Enda's forward knows two things.

astute

Firstly, that Ryan has a sweet spot on his left from which he rarely misses.

Secondly, if he finds it early and his team-mates find him often, he can look like one of the most astute long-range point scorers in hurling.

Much, much more people know those lessons now than they did early on Saturday evening.

"We all know what Paul Ryan is capable of. He's been doing it for years. When he's on his game..

"I was giving out to him for the one he missed before half-time," said Cunningham of a chance that really did have a bang of lost opportunity off it. "I thought it was a crucial one.

"But Paul Ryan is as good a striker as anyone. I think he showed that in the second-half today, not just from frees but from play as well."

Liam Rushe, too, has his charms as a forward.

Very clearly, he has far more as a centre-back and a growing number as a leader of his team too.

And having allowed David Breen dance inside him for the goal that put Limerick in a position of superiority it looked as though only a natural disaster might have saved Dublin the embarrassment of playing out the rest of the match, Rushe produced his best.

Five big balls caught, through the middle and on either flank of the Dublin defence, smart use of possession and all-round fire prevention were his contributions to a madcap victory.

Cunningham, who has taken some persuading on Rushe's best position, couldn't hide his admiration.

"I thought Liam Rushe was phenomenal in the last ten minutes when we needed it," he gushed.

"We caught some brilliant ball and I thought he showed phenomenal leadership there.

"We looked at him ... obviously he's such a good player, Liam Rushe can play in a number of positions.

"But his performance tonight, in the last quarter especially, was fantastic."

Dotsy O'Callaghan's poacher's instincts are in tact, too while Danny Sutcliffe worked his way back to form.

There was also a performance out of the blue from a selection from left field from Daire Plunkett and an effective cameo from Cian Boland, both adding pace to a team devoid of it in the recent past.

And if wasn't always pretty or emphatic late on when mistakes and fumbles were the offshoots of overbearing, desperate pressure, Dublin just looked like the team with the bigger cajones.

That won't be good enough to meet Cunningham's now publicly stated targets ... but it's a start.

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