Hickey hopes his experience helps Treaty drop Banner
RUDYARD KIPLING had a way with words, but he obviously wasn't a long-suffering Limerick hurling fan – or player.
"If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same," may sound like paternal advice to a headstrong young Englishman ... but try telling that to Séamus Hickey who encountered these twin impostors on his previous two All-Ireland semi-final forays to Croke Park.
Hickey is now preparing for his third attempt at the SHC semi-final fence, against Clare this Sunday. And he knows there's a world of difference between his first – a 2007 ambush of Waterford – and his second, a 24-point humiliation against Tipperary in '09.
Now, four years older and wiser, Hickey (pictured) returns to Croker in a new forward position and with a full appreciation for what it takes to thrive at this level.
Back in '07, he was the 19-year-old corner-back who took the senior stage by storm – but much of the semi-final mayhem was taking place at the far end as Limerick stunned Waterford by 5-11 to 2-15.
"We were no-hopers," he recalls, "we were going up to Dublin to lose to a Waterford team that were going to win the All-Ireland that everyone wanted them to win. And to be fair that year if they won it, I wouldn't have begrudged them.
"But we went up a phenomenally hungry team and we probably gave the performance of our lives that day. I learned a lot from that day. I learned what Limerick is capable of when we get it together.
"But I also learned that you have to be measured in how you approach things, because of the hype and euphoria that went around what we did. Repeating it was tough, going into the All-Ireland."
This was the final where holders Kilkenny struck for an early 2-3 salvo to leave Limerick playing an impossible game of catch-up. Hickey finished the season with a Young Hurler of the Year award – and a lesson in the ruthless realities of life among the big boys.
Hickey still views that final as "one of the most defining games" in his inter-county education. "It was the greatest learning experience I've ever had, what it takes to compete. And competing is the word, because I was out-fought," he admits.
Eddie Brennan was his tormentor in more ways than one that September. "Man of the match!" Hickey recounts. "I was clapping him on the Sunday Game!
"But it was an education that day ... I wouldn't go OTT but I was a boy that day, playing with real men," the 25-year-old reflects. "It didn't finish me. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger."
Yet Limerick's '09 semi-final car crash – a Tipp-inflicted 6-19 to 2-7 massacre – almost did just that. It prompted Justin McCarthy's ill-judged cull of a dozen panellists, prompting another raft of player defections for the 2010 season, Hickey among them.
"We weren't equipped that year to compete with the level that was there. The All-Ireland final (between Kilkenny and Tipperary) that year showed the level, and where we needed to get to," the Murroe/Boher clubman recounts. "We were hit for six goals (and 19 points); unfortunately your eyes are opened to where the standard is going and where you are."
All these harsh lessons have shaped Hickey, now a workaholic half-forward who has helped Limerick end their 17-year Munster title famine to set up Sunday's semi-final tilt at Clare.
"I'm experienced now but I'm not projecting a false calmness," he reasons. "I've been here before and I fully believe that if I can help the lads around me, then great. If they can see the example that Donal O'Grady, Niall Moran, Gavin O'Mahony and Wayne Mac (McNamara) give, and if it eases their anxiety, then great. That's what we're there for."