Experienced Kilkenny to prevail – unless Limerick can produce their very best
Munster finalists will have to fire on all cylinders to get the better of Brian Cody’s men who are so comfortable in Croke Park
The likes of Kevin Downes will have to step up and take on Kilkenny’s defence at Croke Park. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho
I’m very close to taking Limerick to win this but ultimately it was just too hard to get it over the line even if I can in certain circumstances see myself being wrong. This may well come down to whether Limerick can bring their ‘A’ game to Croke Park – but even if they do, will it be good enough?
There is though a vulnerability in Kilkenny, which has been there for a while now but maybe not to the same extent as I initially thought.
They’ve operated a different model this season: used a lot of players and not gone with an unchanged team. Brian Cody has been emphasising the word “freshness” and making a virtue out of not having a settled side.
Gradually though the defence has taken on a familiar look with JJ Delaney at full back, joined by Jackie Tyrrell in the corner and Brian Hogan at centre back. That format wasn’t tested in the Leinster final – and the semi-finals in Tullamore were on a tight enough pitch – because Dublin withdrew into defence and never mounted a real challenge.
It’s a key area for Limerick to exploit if they’re going to win it. The likes of Declan Hannon, Kevin Downes and Shane Dowling have to step up and if they take on Kilkenny in that aggressive Limerick fashion up front they will create chances and cause problems.
I said before the Munster final that Cork and Limerick might well be the two best teams left in the championship and Limerick went on to impress against Wexford in the All-Ireland quarter-final but there are still aspects of the Munster final that have to be a concern.
Big matchIt spooked me because Hannon and Downes were ultimately replaced and Downes was also replaced against Wexford and although I believe there’s a big match in him, Limerick will need it tomorrow – because if Kilkenny are vulnerable in this area, they will have to be tested.
There’s also a big burden on Dowling because he missed frees he’d normally get in the Munster final and the unease ran through the team. TJ Reid won’t miss any tomorrow.
Then there is the fact that Limerick’s own half backs and in particular the wing backs – who were both replaced in the Munster final – haven’t been at the level they were last year. Even the last day against Wexford, Diarmuid O’Keeffe scored three points on Paudie O’Brien.
This is going to be a key area for them to close down. TJ Reid has been Kilkenny’s outstanding forward, playing in the half-forward line and Colin Fennelly has caused damage from centre forward.
This isn’t the Kilkenny attack of old – remember, they didn’t manage a goal against Dublin in the Leinster final – and if Limerick can find someone to man mark Reid, who’s been the outstanding forward this year, it would be a massive factor.
When they’ve been impressive and winning matches, much of Limerick’s momentum has been coming from James Ryan and Paul Browne in the middle of the field. We saw it against Tipperary in the first match and against Wexford the last day when they were totally dominant, up against good opposition in Lee Chin.
In the Munster final however, it was Aidan Walsh and Daniel Kearney in the second half who did the damage. The outcome in that area put a big hole in Limerick’s aspirations.
Tomorrow they face Kilkenny’s Richie Hogan, who has gone back to midfield and been outstanding so far. There are all the imponderables for Limerick: can they create pressure at half forward, get a foothold at midfield and hold TJ Reid?
All told, that’s a big ask.
A sweeperMore positively, I think they’re more mature than they were last year and I wouldn’t expect them to display the fragility they showed in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final.
I’ve been impressed by the focus shown by Limerick’s players all season and particularly how they handled Donal O’Grady’s departure as manager.
I would hope that they don’t try to over-complicate things by trying out a sweeper because I’m fully convinced that for them to win they need to play a typical, traditional Limerick game, which is direct and forceful and in which the likes of David Breen, Downes and Graeme Mulcahy will run at the Kilkenny defence.
That was the template in Staker Wallace’s pitch opening last year in Martinstown when Limerick convinced me that they were going to trouble Tipperary in the championship. They did plenty of damage – especially Mulcahy – against a strong Kilkenny team with a hard-running game up front, taking them on man for man in a way that Dublin didn’t in the Leinster final.
If they can do that, they’ll introduce another very important factor. The Limerick crowd will be only waiting for them to take the fight to Kilkenny and players can feed off that.
But it can also become a pressure in itself because if the team doesn’t give them something to cheer about the crowd becomes nervous in Croke Park – as happened against Clare last year and that in turn transmits back on to the pitch.
There are a pile of possibilities in Limerick’s favour but doubts remain in the very areas where they need to succeed if they’re going to win and the probability is still Kilkenny. They have so much experience and craft when it comes to big championship matches in Croke Park and unless their opponents produce their best performance of the year, Kilkenny will reach the final.