When a club team with a glittering cast like Ballyhale gets to finals they're always going to be short odds and this afternoon is no different with the Kilkenny champions heavily favoured to make it six titles at the top of the roll of honour.
Kilmallock are Limerick's first representatives in the final since they themselves contested the 1993 fixture. They have made marked progress since deposing county and provincial champions Na Piarsaigh in the Limerick final with a brace of impressive shoot-outs in Munster, even allowing for extra time, averaging 0-33 against the Cork and Clare champions.
A strong, physical and athletic team, Kilmallock have showed a good capacity for long-range shooting. They have genuine pace in attack with Graeme Mulcahy capable of shaking up the final and his brother Jake top-scoring in the semi-final. County player Gavin O’Mahony has proved an excellent pivot for the forwards but there are reservations about the defence’s mobility in the face of their opponents’ star-studded attack.
There are other issues that will also weigh in Ballyhale’s favour. They are a vastly more experienced team and well versed in playing Croke Park, many of the players having lined out in 2007 and 2010.
This also means that they have previously navigated the winter break between provincial finals and the All-Ireland series.
Kilmallock manager Ger O’Loughlin has an excellent track record getting the best out of club teams, creating a strong central core and making them difficult to break down. He is likely to play a deep centrefield and try to limit the space for Ballyhale’s forwards or at least congest the traffic but that won’t be easy.
The Kilkenny champions have plenty of pace up front and can deploy it on the best surface in the country. Colin Fennelly's movement is difficult to counter and the half-forward line of Henry Shefflin, James Fitzpatrick and TJ Reid is formidable in craft, accuracy and quick thinking.
For all their quality Ballyhale were very lucky to escape from Kilcormac in the Leinster final but they were more impressive in beating Gort in last month’s semi-final.
If Kilmallock start well they can give themselves a chance. More likely, however, is that Ballyhale use their craft and the quick expanses of Croke Park to notch up another title.