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Joe Canning: Kilkenny are in the perfect place for an ambush

Galway must match up with Limerick all across the field to stop them freeing up Barry Nash to dictate the play

The cliche of semi-finals being just about winning has never made a lot of sense to me. Aren’t quarter-finals just about winning too? Isn’t any knock-out game? I don’t buy the idea that you go into an All-Ireland semi-final thinking, ‘It doesn’t matter how we play here lads, we just want to win’. Playing how you want to play is the way to win – that’s the whole point of trying to build a game plan and a style in the first place.

I do think that semi-finals are different in a few subtle ways. For one, it’s nearly always the biggest crowd you’ve played in front of up to that point in the year. You go from a provincial final or an All-Ireland quarter-final to Croke Park with at least 60,000 people in the stands. There’s a sense of occasion around it.

The other thing is that the refereeing tends to be slightly different. The lads who referee the semi-finals probably know at that stage that they’re unlikely to get the final, so they often relax a bit and they let things go that they wouldn’t usually. They don’t get hung up on technical fouls as much. As a result, the game opens up and the two teams play with greater freedom.

Plus the fact, the players aren’t as nervous as they would be for a final. There isn’t that all-or-nothing feel about it. In a strange kind of way, it never feels like there’s as much to lose. If you don’t win your semi-final, chances are you weren’t good enough to win the final anyway. I often found that freed guys up to have a go at it. Whereas a final can have the opposite effect.

There’s a few contradictions to the first semi-final this weekend. Clare are the better team on their day and yet this looks perfectly set up for Kilkenny. Clare have more match-winners but they probably have more potentially fatal weaknesses too. Kilkenny have lost two games already in the championship but they’re Leinster champions and they’re exactly where they want to be.

Clare have had three extremely tough matches in the championship so far but Wexford was the first time they actually got the job done and won. They have stared down the barrel against Limerick twice and once against Wexford – that experience should stand to them. They should be going in here full of confidence that what they’ve had to do to get here is a level above what Kilkenny have had to do.

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But those tough matches have uncovered a few cracks as well. Brian Lohan has a big call to make on Rory Hayes, for example. He has a reputation for being Clare’s most outstanding corner back but if you look at the match-ups he’s had in this championship, I don’t know if that really stands up.

Dessie Hutchinson scored 1-6 in the round-robin game with Waterford. Séamie Flanagan took him for eight points in the Munster final. Lee Chin scored one and set up another before Hayes was subbed off after eight minutes the last day. There’s a big distance between perception and reality there and Lohan can only afford to deal in reality.

Tony Kelly started the last day at full forward and spent a good portion of the game there. Would that be a good idea here? I don’t think it would. Clare need him out around the middle, coming on to breaks and getting his shots away.

The question for Kilkenny is who to get to man-mark him. I know a lot of people assume it will be Mikey Butler but personally I would see Conor Browne as being more suited to the job. The mistake some teams make with Kelly is sending a dogged, physical, touch-tight marker out after him. To me, that’s playing into his hands.

Kelly is too elusive for that. He gets his shots away quickly, regardless of how tight his marker is to him. And the longer the game goes on, the more tired the physical marker gets. The last thing you want to be when the game is in the balance down the stretch is a tired hurler whose job it is to stop Tony Kelly.

I think you have to give that job to someone who is more of a reader of the game than a touch-tight assassin type of defender. You need someone who is going to do it with his brain, who is going to pick his battles and thinks more about jumping out and making an intercept than getting into a wrestling match.

Overall, I’m just not fully convinced by Clare. Whereas Kilkenny come into this in the perfect position. They are underdogs, which they will be both delighted and annoyed by. Nobody loves being written off more than Kilkenny. They love being told they’re yesterday’s men and that they don’t have what it takes. That sort of talk suits them down to the ground.

Beyond that, the match-ups here work out quite nicely for them. Huw Lawlor on Peter Duggan, Paddy Deegan on Shane O’Donnell. At the other end, you’d have to expect either TJ Reid or Walter Walsh to go in full forward from the start and really test out that Clare full-back line. Wexford went to town on them the last day and TJ is the best fielder of the ball in the game. If he gets under three high balls and only catches one of them, at worst you’re probably looking at a penalty. If he catches two, Clare are in massive trouble.

All in all, Clare are rightly favourites for the game. But a four-week break has never been a problem for Kilkenny in the past and they’ll be coming into this one hopping and bouncing. I wouldn’t be in any way surprised if they pulled out a performance and got a result.

In the other game, there’s no point sugar-coating things just because I’m from Galway. The reality of the game is that Galway need to do everything right and they need Limerick to have an off-day. Otherwise, there’s really only one outcome possible.

What I mean by an off-day for Limerick is one of those games where the stick-passes don’t go to hand, where the ball gets spilt a lot and they don’t get into the rhythm we’ve become used to from them. It’s a long time since we’ve seen that happen so I won’t be holding my breath.

Galway have to do everything they can to try to force that sort of off-day in Limerick. To me, they have to go man-on-man, match up 15 against 15 all across the pitch. The Limerick defenders have to spend the afternoon under ferocious pressure so that they’re unable to build from the back and get their angles and passing lanes moving.

Barry Nash has had an excellent championship for Limerick and he’s in the running for Hurler of the Year. But a big part of that is down to teams not matching up 15-on-15 against Limerick and leaving him free to come out with the ball. It doesn’t have to be that way.

When you’re looking at an opposition, a good place to start is to identify what they like doing and focus on not letting them do it. We played Cork in the 2015 All-Ireland quarter-final and they had brought back Brian Murphy that year to play as an extra defender occupying the D. I decided during that game that I was going to go over and stand beside him.

I wasn’t marking him. I wasn’t engaging with him physically or anything like that. I was more so just in his eyeline and in and around his company. In all honesty, it was more about being in his head than anything else. Eoin Cadogan was marking me and he came with me so effectively, it meant that the guy who was supposed to be their free man was suddenly feeling crowded in his area.

I actually had a terrible day shooting in that game – seven or eight wides in the end up. But because I was keeping Murphy occupied and because Cadogan was there as well, it opened up the space for the rest of our lads.

The point is, you don’t have to go along with how the other team wants to set up. Limerick always want to get Nash free to let him be the link man. There was a moment in the Munster final where Seán Finn found himself in a bit of space and went forward and left Nash doing the marking in the full-back line – you could see Nash calling for him to come back to free him up.

There’s no reason for Galway to give Nash that leeway. If they go 15-on-15, they can pressure him every time he comes out with the ball. Defend from the front, make every possession a contested one, don’t allow Limerick that space and time to construct their attacks. Nash is down in the programme as a corner back after all – make him defend, get him on the back foot. Galway have to ask the question at least.

It’s the kind of game where they will probably need a couple of early goals to build up a cushion. If they’re not five or six points up going into the last five minutes, it’s hard to imagine them seeing it out. I’d love to see young Gavin Lee sprung from the bench with the game in the balance because has that bit of fizz about him that Limerick might not be expecting.

I do think that Galway will be physically capable of going the distance with Limerick. We were actually level with them in the 70th minute in the 2020 semi-final. I didn’t know a lot about it – I was in the back of an ambulance as injury-time was getting played out. But the point I’m making is that Galway won’t be blown out of it in the physical stakes.

Do I see Galway being good enough to pull it off? I’m more hopeful than confident. But we have a chance and that’s all you need. A chance and who knows what might happen!