Four teams left to fight for hurling’s rich summer spoils
Formidable Limerick aren’t defending their All-Ireland, they’re attacking it
Davy Fitzgerald: his Wexford side have only conceded two goals en route to the All-Ireland semi-final against Tipperary. Photograph: Gary Carr/Inpho
Four teams left standing in the hurling championship, three games left to prise them apart. It will be Limerick or it will be Kilkenny or it will be Tipperary or it will be Wexford. By tomorrow night, we’ll know a little more and judge a little better.
Or at least we should.
Before this weekend last year there had never been extra-time in an All-Ireland semi-final but then we had it twice in the space of 24 hours. It was as though the first ever provision of the possibility of extra-time without having to go to a replay meant the teams couldn’t resist trying it out. Like when you put a red button in front of kids and tell them not to press it. And even then, Galway and Clare still needed a replay the following weekend to clarify the final line-up.
So let’s not assume that the weekend will be definitive.
Limerick and Tipperary go into their respective encounters as favourites but neither Kilkenny nor Wexford will be able to grump afterwards that nobody gave them a chance. The oddsmakers have both clashes down as three-point games. A puck of a ball, nothing more.
It’s Kilkenny’s first appearance in an All-Ireland semi-final since 2016. Across those three years, their role in the hurling firmament has mostly been to act as proving agents for counties who are on their way to a better place. Tipperary, Wexford, Waterford, Galway, Limerick – each of them has been given a look in the mirror over the past three years and because they beat Kilkenny, they’ve been heartened by what they’ve seen.
There is a certain back-handed compliment in all that, of course. But you’d imagine it has a limited enough lifespan.
One of these years, Kilkenny will be back in their natural role, back quelling rebellions rather than feeding insurrections. It may even be this year – now is probably a good time to remind readers that they’ve won their last 10 All-Ireland semi-finals, stretching back as far as 2005.
For all the turnover in Brian Cody’s panel in recent years, it’s likely that seven and possibly eight of the team he sends out tonight were also in the side that wore Limerick down in their epic semi-final back in 2014. This may not be the Kilkenny of old but they’re not complete greenhorns either.
Signs are as well that they’re gradually getting the band back together. Walter Walsh, Richie Hogan, Cillian Buckley and James Maher all contributed the last day against Cork. It’s reasonable to assume that the fortnight since has brought them on in strides and so they ought to be able to give even more this time around.
When they pushed the needle into the red against Cork, the Munster side withered away. It’s the main piece of cross-provincial form we have to go on and it suggests, at least, that they won’t go in overly daunted.
Of course, Limerick are Limerick. In mind, body and spirit, they look the closest thing the game has right now to old Kilkenny. Since the early blip against Cork back in May, they’ve been pretty much unimpeachable in their defence of their title. The three games where the stakes have been highest, they’ve won by an average of 17 points.
All the old ghosts have been zapped – they don’t fear Kilkenny, they don’t quail at the sight of Croke Park, none of that. In short, they aren’t defending their All-Ireland, they’re attacking it. Kilkenny will be informed of same with great vengeance and furious anger. What a prospect.
As for tomorrow, Wexford’s return to the semi-finals for the first time since 2007 will at the very least amp up the decibel levels around Dublin 3. They are more than just their ability to draw a crowd though and will travel to Croke Park knowing they have a huge chance of making a first final in 23 years.
Davy Fitzgerald’s unbeaten team – the only one left in the competition, by the by – are unlikely to be very high on the list of Tipp’s preferred opponents just now, especially given how frugal they’ve been in defence.
Whereas Kilkenny have conceded nine goals so far in the championship, and Tipp and Limerick four, Wexford have only given up two. And just one of those has been from play.
The flipside, naturally, is that nobody has scored more goals that Tipp’s 10. It’s a mere four weeks since Liam Sheedy’s side were heading into the Munster final unbeaten and unruffled, averaging 30 points a game and looking like the uncrowned kings of the sport. This isn’t how they were meant to reach this point but here they are.
Here they all are. Four teams left, the summer’s riches on the table. Time to see who’s feeling grabby.