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Jackie Tyrrell: All-Ireland semi-final is the worst stage possible to lose at

Limerick won’t beat Kilkenny unless they match their rivals’ insatiable will to win

I always felt All-Ireland semi-finals were like when you were a young teenager, full of life and mischief as you walked up to a nightclub door and approached the bouncers, bursting with excitement about how the night would unfold. Suddenly the large hand of the bouncer would be shoved in your face at the door.

“Not tonight, son.”


All-Ireland semi-finals feel like that because you arrive at them in hope rather than in expectation. You have earned nothing yet. Nobody owes you a place in an All-Ireland final and everything you’ve done up to that point counts for nothing. You’re either getting through the door or you’re not.


Losing the match was like getting refused because you had no ID. It was the biggest letdown and your world came crashing to a stop there and then. It was like you could see in the door of the nightclub and see your friends drinking away and having great fun without giving you a second’s thought.

You could hear the music as the strobe lights spilled out the door onto your miserable face and you weren’t taking part in any of it. You had convinced your parents to let you out, bought the nice new clobber and saved up the money. And it was all for nothing.

All-Ireland semi-finals are the worse stage to lose at. You’re left in limbo having been so close. You head off into the winter with nothing to hold onto. Your year is over at the worst possible time, just when you’re within touching distance of the thing you’ve been obsessed with for eight months. The what-ifs come from all sides of your mind and squat there until you can muster up the strength and energy to evict them.

I always said I’d prefer to be gone before a semi-final than to lose one. If your summer ends in a quarter-final or a qualifier, then you just weren’t good enough that year.

You don’t spend the winter wondering, you just knuckle down and bury it and promise yourself not to let it happen again. A semi-final defeat – unless you get a tanking – just leaves you wondering.

If you lose a final, well at least you got there. At least you made it to the day in the calendar that you had circled from the very start of pre-season. Any game can go any way on a given day so if you lose a final, well, that’s sport. But a semi-final defeat is just oblivion, neither here nor there. It’s the friend zone. You don’t want to be in the friend zone.

Extra defender

The prize for the weekend’s winners is a place on the steps of greatness, touching distance of the holy grail.

So the prize this weekend is huge for the four teams involved. When I look deeply at the two games, I see a couple of completely different types of encounters.

Both games will involve a massive amount of preparation with a huge focus from management teams on tactics, hours of thought put into their teams, data on each stat, how each team will play, set-ups, match-ups, substitutes, shapes and all the rest of it. But to the naked eye, that tactical prep will be a lot more visible in the Wexford v Tipp game.

Laois probably did Tipperary a bit of a favour in setting up in a fairly similar way to how Wexford do. You could visibly see traces of how Tipperary will take on Wexford in parts of the Laois game. Laois deployed an extra defender and so Tipperary smartly used that game to explore the potential of a different type of sweeper in Brendan Maher.

They also allowed their two corner-backs Cathal Barrett and Alan Flynn to hunt down the withdrawn Laois attackers and to follow them out into the jungle that is the middle third. When they were out there, they weren’t just marking their men – they were actually contesting breaking ball in that sector and feeding on scraps.

The norm would be to sit on their own 65 and wait for them to come back into the Tipperary half before engaging with them. It was aggressive from Tipperary but it shows the bravery and innovation they possess. It will be interesting to see do they put it into action now against Wexford, who will obviously be a step up from Laois.

Tipperary have seen this type of team before – Waterford, Wexford in the league – so they know what comes with the territory. They’re not strangers to finding a way around a team playing with an extra defender. Go back to the 2016 Munster final and they actually played over Tadhg De Burca, rather than around him.

But they will need to heed the warning that there are more strings to this Wexford team’s bow now. In year three of Davy’s term, they are a better conditioned team than when he started. Their physicality was very evident in the Leinster final where they were strong in the tackle and made full use of the big men they have all over the pitch.

Electric pace

They go looking for work and at all times they want make the game into a physical encounter. On top of that, they only shot three wides all day against Kilkenny. That sort of accuracy is pretty much unheard of in a high-stakes, nip-and-tuck game like that.

They vary their puck-outs, going short and running through the lines, going mid-range to Diarmuid O'Keeffe and Shaun Murphy and going long to catching targets like Lee Chin and Conor McDonald.

They biggest area of opportunity Wexford can use is the electric pace they have in abundance from midfield up. They possess huge pace and athleticism in O'Keeffe, Chin, Rory O'Connor, Liam Óg McGovern, Cathal Dunbar and Aidan Nolan from the bench. With Kevin Foley deploying a deep lying position that offers up huge space in the Tipperary defence and one thing Croke Park does is expose any lack of pace. I know it only too well – I spent 14 years trying to escape this trap, fire-fighting against pacy corner-forwards.

So how should the Tipperary defenders deal with it? There are times when you have to roll the dice. You can be in a vulnerable position, with space all around you and feeling isolated but that’s the time to be brave and push up on the forward’s shoulder.

First to the ball is key, deny them clean primary possession. JJ Delaney had a pain in his ear from me barking at him – as soon as his foot stepped over our own 65 an alarm went off in my mind. Stop! Back! I wouldn’t let him pass it and that had the same knock-on message to Michael Fennelly in front of him and Eoin Larkin as well. It meant you played and defended as a unit.

There will be times when it's one-on-one and the Tipperary defence need to be brave

I was never offered the luxury of an extra defender beside me but I didn’t want it. I was brought up in a culture of testing your defensive skills and instincts to cope with the best attackers. I felt an easy option was an extra defender and that you weren’t using all the coaching and time and effort invested in you as a player. It was a vote of no confidence in you as a defender.

Wexford will give Tipperary an extra defender and it will be a security blanket for plenty of the game. But there will be times when it’s one-on-one and the Tipperary defence need to be brave, play on the front foot and play as a unit, covering for each other. If they limit Kevin Foley’s influence and keep his possessions under 10 to 12 they have a great chance. For Wexford, hitting three wides is a hugely impressive stat but replicating it is even harder.

The trenches

With Limerick and Kilkenny, the various tactical manoeuvrings won't be as evident but they're still crucial. The devil will be in the detail. Both teams will have deep-lying half-forward lines that will practically mark each other across the middle of Croke Park.

That space between the 65s will be totally compressed, bodies upon bodies. And that’s where the game will be won and lost. Covering each other’s half-back lines, so they can drop off deep and cut off the channels to the two inside forwards on either side. A game of possession and distribution, dictated by who wins in the trenches around the middle.

The key players here for Limerick are Kyle Hayes and Gearóid Hegarty. They use their physicality so well in this area, getting in around the ball, winning it when the bodies are flying all around them and then, crucially, always being able to turn and find Declan Hannon, Diarmaid Byrnes or Cian Lynch in space to laser ball into Limerick's inside line.

Kilkenny have plenty of strong, physical players in this regard too but it’s Hayes and Hegarty who generally dictate matters in around here. Kilkenny have to break even against them to have a chance. If they do, then the quality of ball going into Colin Fennelly and Richie Hogan in the full-forward line improves and Kilkenny’s chances improve accordingly.

Kilkenny haven't lost an All-Ireland semi-final since 2005

Limerick probably have the edge on form, on consistency, on the momentum they’re building as they go on collecting trophies. But Kilkenny haven’t lost an All-Ireland semi-final since 2005. They’ve made the last four 10 times since then and always made the final. These are different players at different stages in their careers but they have that one constant – the man in charge and the effort he demands from them.

Kilkenny will die with their boots on. Limerick won’t beat them unless they do the same.