We're a bit more cute
Condon warns that Limerick are older and wiser ahead of crucial tie against the Banner men
TOM CONDON was an unused sub when Limerick hurlers imploded against Tipperary in August 2009. The following New Year's Eve, he joined three other colleagues from the '09 panel in withdrawing from the latest squad being cobbled together by an embattled Justin McCarthy for the 2010 season. Limerick, so often the crisis junkies of senior county hurling through the noughties, were again in meltdown.
Four years on from that Tipp-inflicted 24-point fiasco, Limerick hurlers return to the All-Ireland semi-final stage. On Sunday they face Clare, but the mood heading to Croke Park – as Munster champions eyeing an All-Ireland prize that has eluded the county for 40 years – could not be more different.
"Yeah, 'twas a dark day for Limerick," says Condon, recalling that 6-19 to 2-7 defeat. "I remember I was sitting in the subs bench that day. Preparation wasn't right back then, and ye know well in 2010 what happened.
"It's been a long road back, but we knew what was there back then and it's just taken a while to come through. People didn't believe in us but we knew ourselves – player-wise – what we had and what we were capable of. And we're just delighted to get back up there now and be able to show people."
McCarthy's bombshell decision to omit a dozen of his '09 panel – or more especially the ill-judged manner in which the cull was handled – was the catalyst for a crisis that led to numerous more player defections. The net result was a 'lost' year, in every sense of the word, as Limerick limped from one heavy defeat to another with effectively a shadow panel.
The journey back to Croker has been marked by incremental progress, facilitated by the arrival of two more managers from Leeside – first Donal O'Grady, then John Allen for the past two seasons.
Condon rejoined the panel and duly established his first-team credentials in 2011. The Treaty men eventually bowed out, narrowly, to Dublin in an All-Ireland quarter-final after which O'Grady called time on his brief Shannonside sojourn.
"Especially with the beating in 2009 and then with the fallout in 2010, it took a while for people to get confidence back – player-wise and supporter-wise," says the Knockaderry clubman.
"But once we had these few guys from the under-21s coming through, they knew what winning was about and it kind of spread ... and once the ball started rolling, then it's hard to stop."
O'Grady, he says, brought them "way back to basics as regards hurling-wise, skill-wise and fitness-wise. He brought Jerry Wallace with him, and his detail to our fitness aspect was phenomenal. We used to be training for two-and-a-half hours at a time. It was pretty intense stuff.
"John Allen and Donach (O'Donnell) just took over from where they left off. They've brought a different game-plan and a different edge to the game for us, compared to what we were used to and brought up with."
Their first summer under Allen saw Limerick threaten ambushes against the big two – Tipperary in Munster and Kilkenny in the quarter-final – only to fade out on the home straight of each contest.
"Our team was very young last year," says Condon, a losing All-Ireland minor finalist in 2005. "This year we had more experience of big games, but last year there were question marks over our fitness and stamina towards the end of games. I thought that was wrong; it was a lack of cuteness and experience that caught us last year.
"This year fellas are a year older. There is no hiding place. Fellas knew what to expect and we kicked on this year. Against Tipperary this year when we came out (after) half-time, we went four points down. When that happened last year our heads dropped and they ran riot whereas this year we just regrouped, never panicked, drove on and got over the line."
This summer it has been Limerick's turn to deliver storming last quarters against Tipp and then 14-man Cork, ending 17 years in the provincial wilderness. Their style of play has been moderated under Allen, as it was with O'Grady beforehand ... but not so much as some would claim.
"When Donal O'Grady came in to us there were question marks that we were playing a short-passing game, but that was never the case," Condon maintains.
"It's just intelligent use of the ball coming out of defence and trying to deliver it to the forwards. Traditionally, Limerick was always a gung-ho style and I think that's still the case; we still hurl off the cuff. But it's just that bit cuter and more intelligent, finding a man and stuff."
Part of Condon hankers after that old-school "open the shoulders" era. Here, after all, is a tenacious defender from the rural outpost of Knockaderry – the hurlers are intermediate and he struggles to identify their last clubman to represent Limerick – and who grew up idolising Stephen McDonagh. "I always used to love going to the games, watching him play. Hurled off the cuff. Such a tough marker as well," he enthuses.
"That's the way you think about playing hurling," he admits with a laugh. "Getting the ball and driving as far as you can. But there has to be a bit of cuteness about it and a bit of precision. It does pay off if you stick to the game-plan."
And, presuming they abide by that plan, will it culminate in victory over Clare? "When you go into a game you have to be confident, no matter who you're coming up against," Condon reflects. "I feel we can beat them; on any given day you can beat any team. It's just, as I say, having the right mentality and thinking positive."