Limerick poised but Kilkenny look on a mission

Having the components to produce a surprise is one thing but putting them together is another

Limerick’s Shane Dowling celebrates one of his two goals against Wexford in the quarter-final at Thurles. He will pose a major threat to Kilkenny’s defence on Sunday. Photo: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

Limerick’s Shane Dowling celebrates one of his two goals against Wexford in the quarter-final at Thurles. He will pose a major threat to Kilkenny’s defence on Sunday. Photo: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

Tomorrow will be Kilkenny’s 14th All-Ireland hurling semi-final in the 15 years of Brian Cody’s management. Of those 14, the county has lost just two – both to Galway in 2001 and ‘05.

Small wonder then, that the odds appear so disproportionate with Limerick available at better than two to one.

The sight of black-and-amber jerseys in Croke Park in August brings with it the hard-wired assumptions that Kilkenny will again reach the final, particularly as this is a year when they are not defending champions – as they were going into the two previous All-Ireland semi-final defeats – and look as if they’re on a mission to rectify that situation.

How much of this though is illusion, conjured up by the repetition of the apparently familiar: a crushing replay victory over Galway and double-scores thrashing of Dublin in the Leinster final?

There are however frailties. Neither Galway nor Dublin were in the mood this year and Cody won’t have gathered too much high-grade data over those three matches.

During the one spell of genuinely sustained pressure exerted – by Galway in the second half of the drawn Leinster semi-final – Kilkenny buckled. Running repairs have been made and some tactical innovations conceived but these haven’t been fleeting difficulties.

Life force

Last year was the poorest of Cody’s 15 seasons, undermined by injuries and what felt like a fading of the great team’s life force.

Even two years ago when Kilkenny won the All-Ireland they stuttered throughout the campaign, going from poor to good until driven by the ferocity of Henry Shefflin’s leadership, they saved the first day and gave their best display in that year’s final replay.

A large number of the same personnel are still involved and the question arises: do the iconic leadership figures of the county’s greatest period still have the energy and do the younger, more energetic players have the leadership?

They might be on the march again but teams no longer quake at their approach. This will be particularly true of Limerick who have had just fleeting contact with Kilkenny in the modern era. As a county though, they see themselves as heirs to a tradition which always saw tomorrow’s opposition as rivals not superiors.

Some of this fearlessness was visible when the counties met in 2012 and Shefflin neutralised what could have been an irretrievably good start by Limerick.

Two years on and TJ Ryan’s team have matured. They brushed aside a typical Limerick managerial crisis as late as May, beat Tipperary in Thurles for the first time in over 40 years and in the quarter-final put the summer’s favourite team Wexford to the sword.

But question marks arise from two sources: this stage last year and the Munster final. On both occasions Limerick blinked under pressure and whereas the pressures of last year’s defeat by Clare won’t be repeated – inexperience and the weight of expectation and favouritism the seizing up in Cork last month is a more topical concern.

Shane Dowling will need to revert to the dead-ball competence that apparently had him on a par with TJ Reid and Patrick Horgan. In play he’s been impressive and wisely has been moved out of full forward, as if you’re a big young hurler used to taking the ball high you don’t want JJ Delaney as your dance partner.

Firing on all cylinders, Limerick can make a go of this. The dynamism and aggression of David Breen and Graeme Mulcahy can test Kilkenny’s defence.

They’ll need their centrefield exhibiting the same energy and to stop the leaks in the half-backs. But even if Kilkenny are a fading collective they still have exceptional talents. Reid and Richie Hogan have been delivering this year and the Leinster champions can also call on a powerful, experienced bench. It mightn’t add up to another All-Ireland but it will do for tomorrow.

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