Nicky English: Limerick find form in time for latest heavyweight bout with Clare

‘There’s so little between the top counties in Munster that the odds on this going to extra time again would be short enough’

Last year’s Munster final was one of the most intense and savage matches I’ve ever seen. It emerged afterwards that Limerick hadn’t trained for more than a week afterwards because it had taken so much out of them.

We thought at the time that Clare had blown it out of their system with the scrappy win over Wexford less than a fortnight later but you’d have to wonder even though John Conlon wasn’t available where it left them. Certainly, the performance against Kilkenny was nowhere near the level they had shown in Munster.

Since then they’ve had another ferocious championship encounter. They hammered it out with Clare’s slightly better conversion rate winning it narrowly in the end.

You’d have to wonder what’s in it for the two teams to belt each up and down the Ennis Road. It’s true that Clare would celebrate a Munster title not having won one for 25 years and Limerick have never won five in a row — only Cork have ever achieved that — but will there be a long-term price to pay?


I don’t believe for a moment that the dynamic will shift because of that. There’s so little between the top counties in Munster that the odds on this going to extra time again would be short enough, but I imagine it’s ultimately the last thing that either team wants.

There has been so little between these teams. The last three championship matches ended level twice on 70 minutes — Limerick winning by a score in extra time in last year’s final and Clare won by a point in April.

I would be surprised if Conor Cleary is able to play any part. He is of huge importance to Clare because of the size and physicality of Aaron Gillane and Séamus Flanagan on the inside line. Cleary has marked Gillane in recent years, so what do you do if he’s not available?

Move David McInerney from half back? That would diminish the power in that line, which is a loss because someone is going to have to mark Hegarty as well. Clare match up very well physically with Limerick with everyone on board — Cleary, McInerney, Diarmuid Ryan, John Conlan but Cleary’s absence would unbalance that equation.

Limerick have traditionally stuck with their zonal defence despite the presence of Tony Kelly, who has been let drift around the place and average more than five points from play. It’s surprising in a way because man markers have had success on him: Cathal Barrett for Tipp, Mikey Butler in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final for Kilkenny — although I’m not sure Kelly was 100 per cent that day.

He has managed to find pockets of space against Limerick from where he can score but this year there’s been more support. David Fitzgerald, Shane O’Donnell, Peter Duggan, Mark Rodgers and, the last day, the half backs have all contributed. Ryan Taylor is hugely energetic but scoring isn’t his forte and he can miss then easier ones.

The Gaelic Grounds won’t hold any fear for them, but will they win?

I saw things in Limerick that suggest they are gradually improving. In the draw against Tipperary, they hung in and their half-back line improved, driven by Kyle Hayes and Diarmaid Byrnes.

That middle-third improvement was sustained against Cork but most critically, Gearóid Hegarty found his form after worrying episodes in which he became involved in arguments with Cork players to the point where I wondered would John Kiely worry and take him off.

Add him back in and the concerns about Limerick’s scoring rate have eased. They scored 3-25 against Cork, well up on the early to mid-20s they had been scoring earlier in Munster.

They’ll need to improve to beat Clare, who are better than Cork but I think they’re heading in the right direction.

The Leinster final is a big game for Galway. At this stage they have to show something. Last year in this fixture they brought nothing and shot wide after wide and made mistake after mistake. They recovered a bit but it became impossible to see them winning an All-Ireland a few weeks after a display like that.

If it wasn’t for Joseph Cooney and Daithí Burke hauling them out of trouble against Dublin, they wouldn’t even be in the final.

They were extremely poor against Dublin. I know they had excuses and, ultimately, they weathered it but there were very worrying signs of individualism, a tendency for the forwards to shoot on sight from the wing. They had a lot of wides from this “hit-and-hope” approach.

Their defence was under pressure from Dublin’s pace and the forwards have a good few new faces and Conor Whelan was not really at his best. I’ll be interested to see how they can improve because Kilkenny will do what they always do, play to the sum of their parts.

It’s not the greatest Kilkenny team ever but they were within a few points of winning last year’s All-Ireland. The transition to Derek Lyng has been fairly seamless but now the tests are coming.

They’re without Adrian Mullen, who is a huge loss in terms of scoring, ball-winning and tackling — that whole middle-third engagement.

I still haven’t seen enough from Galway to suggest that they’re going to make a stand and compete here so the percentage call has to be Kilkenny.