Limerick worthy favourites for semi-final showdown with Clare
Victories over Tipperary and Cork suggest John Allen’s men mean business
Seamus Hickey celebrates scoring a point against Cork in the Munster senior hurling final at the Gaelic Grounds. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
The most exciting GAA All-Ireland hurling championship since the 1990s tomorrow moves on to its penultimate fixture with an even larger crowd than last week’s 62,000-plus expected in Croke Park.
Unlike last weekend’s big-city battle between Dublin and Cork, this will be more local and intimate. Not alone are Limerick and Clare fellow-provincials but they are neighbours and in areas live cheek by jowl in the hinterland of Limerick city.
At the outset it has to be said that Limerick, as the only unbeaten county in this year’s championship, are worthy favourites for this. Under John Allen, they have developed an impressive project over the past two seasons, blending the hard-knocks experience of older players with the exuberance and talent of younger panel members.
They started making championship waves last year with encouraging if ultimately unsuccessful contests against Tipperary and Kilkenny marking them as a team worth watching.
Their form has been better than anyone else’s because they have played to their strengths and succeeded in imposing their game on opponents.
There have been question marks over the matches against Tipperary and Cork: the chances that both teams didn’t take early on and the subsequently rescinded red card shown to Patrick Horgan just on half-time in the Munster final.
Yet with Tipp having apparently taken control of the match in the third quarter, their performance foundered on Limerick’s resolute wresting back of the initiative whereas Cork looked in trouble even by the time they lost their best forward.
Clare come into this with the vigour and rebound of a young team on a run. Three wins since losing to Cork bring the county to a first All-Ireland semi-final in seven years and with the added buoyancy of having won the Munster under-21 title in authoritative fashion.
With serious pace and dazzling technical ability, they could run riot tomorrow if let and if they reach for the salt rather than the pepper.
Tactically they mastered Galway and when threatened by the concession of potentially morale-sapping goals, they responded strongly on the scoreboard. The Galway form-line isn’t however great, as Dublin experienced last week when struggling at times to find best form against less compliant opponents.
The five-week break didn’t help the Leinster champions either and their Munster counterparts face the same challenge tomorrow. Limerick however are in a different position.
Whereas it took Dublin five successive weeks to hit top gear in the Leinster final, making a long lay-off more of an unknown quantity, Limerick maintained a longer-beat rhythm.
They hit the ground running against Tipp and already have had to put down five weeks between the provincial semi-final and final and still maintained their form intact. As soon as the Munster final was over Allen drew up a schedule for the five weeks, which, unlike Dublin’s, included sending players back to their clubs for championship fixtures in the middle of that period.
This is their first venture out of the Gaelic Grounds this summer but Allen was at pains to point out they had had a good win over Dublin in the league at Croke Park and wouldn’t need any orientation courses to find their way around.
On the field, Limerick’s more mature physical presence, especially in the middle third of the field poses a difficulty for Clare’s quick, more mercurial running game. David Fitzgerald really needs his team to find the menace of Darach Honan and Conor McGrath on the inside more quickly. Even then Limerick’s work rate is good and they’ll have the discipline to cover back but any slackening and they might well be in trouble.
Limerick may not detail a man marker to follow Tony Kelly but racing through the thicket of Donal O’Grady, Paul Browne, James Ryan and Wayne McNamara won’t be easy.
If there is a nagging doubt about Clare it’s their concentration levels over 70 minutes.
They have been prone to give away scores and frees carelessly and although they’ll have derived great confidence from progress to date, the pressure tomorrow will be a step up in intensity with Limerick’s full forwards, Graeme Mulcahy, Declan Hannon and Seán Tobin, also a genuinely threatening line if defensive structure cracks.
John Allen has also played his bench really well and if at times it looks a bit hair-raising to leave so much firepower – Kevin Downes, Shane Dowling, Conor Allis and Niall Moran – out of the starting line-up, it has crucially ensured a high-quality 15 on the field in the final quarter.
All-Munster All-Ireland semi-finals have proved surprising in the past but the evidence points to this one going as expected.