Nicky English: Cork have the experience but resilient Limerick have real potential
It’s hard to look beyond formidable Galway in the first semi-final at headquarters
Limerick’s Dan Morrissey celebrates at the final whistle with Sean Finn (No 2) after the thrilling quarter-final victory over Kilkenny at Thurles. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
The most obvious point about Saturday’s All-Ireland semi-final is that if Galway’s display in the Leinster final replay in Thurles represented a stepped improvement by the champions, then the 2018 championship is over.
That level of hurling will be enough to win the All-Ireland, never mind beat Clare.
I haven’t been certain though about Galway this year – not in the way it was possible to be in 2017 when they swept everything before them. I didn’t like what they showed during the league and although that improved in the Leinster round-robin, that loss of dynamism you often get with defending champions was all too visible in the drawn provincial final.
I’m more inclined to think that they might have spiked in the replay against Kilkenny as a reaction to a poor display the first day but, whatever the reason, it was their best performance of the past two years.
So it will be interesting to see whether Galway can maintain that level. They really raised their game in Thurles with the half-back line in particular stepping up. That platform, established by Pádraic Mannion, Gearóid McInerney and Aidan Harte, was crucial.
Overall, the team used size and skill to do untold damage in the forwards. Another dose of that would be too good for Clare, who disappointed in the Munster final after looking like they had recaptured something of their 2013 form during the round-robin matches.
Their main players were going well: John Conlon had been as good a forward as there is in the championship and Peter Duggan had given them the steadiness all contenders need in their free-takers. Somehow it all came unstuck in the second half in Thurles.
Although they got back on the road in the quarter-final, I didn’t see huge improvement in Clare. They had the measure of Wexford, who at the same time created enough late chances to tie up the match before they were put away in the final stages.
The truth is though that Galway could fall off the high standard of the last day and still win. Their two big advantages are physical and defensive. It will be hard for Clare’s forwards to win their individual battles.
The champions have been very forceful in the half forwards whereas Clare’s half backs have struggled.
It’s very hard to see a surprise being sprung here.
Sunday’s semi-final had me initially feeling strongly that Limerick would win but the closer the game has got, the more my confidence has been undermined by how far below the radar Cork have been flying despite an unbeaten run to date and back-to-back Munster titles.
I did think Limerick were a better team in Páirc Uí Chaoimh when they first played all of nine weeks ago and that despite being down to 14 men. But those matches with their imbalance are distorted and sometimes can give an unreliable reading.
It appeared to me though that if they were to play again, I’d fancy Limerick, who since then have been impressive against Kilkenny. They answered the Richie Hogan goal superbly but at times they can look over-coached and it’s when they come off-programme, like they did at times against Kilkenny and Cork, that they look most formidable.
In the quarter-final they reverted after half-time to the heavily structured and overelaborate short-passing game and it wasn’t until they were in trouble at the end that they really went for it and produced that breathtaking finish.
A danger for Limerick is the scale of the expectation for a team with no senior Croke Park experience; just three of the team are survivors from the 2013 and ’14 semi-finals.
This is where Cork can be really dangerous. They have the vital advantage – especially as bad experiences are so much more valuable than good ones – of having lost last year’s semi-final to Waterford.
You could argue that many of Cork’s starting 15 had experience of losing in 2014 but the key, younger players – Mark Coleman, Darragh Fitzgibbon, Luke Meade, Shane Kingston – had been the big performers in last year’s Munster championship and they found the going hard in their first big match in Croke Park.
I happened to be in the tunnel area when their bus arrived in the stadium and Cork’s younger players looked very nervous. It was no coincidence that Coleman – especially up against a seasoned warrior like Brick Walsh – and Fitzgibbon, who had both been exceptional in the Munster final, had their worst days of the championship.
That will be different this time and it is their opponents who will be banking the experience.
It’s also worth mentioning for yet another year that the record of Munster champions in All-Ireland semi-finals has been dire for well over a decade. More recently, the province’s standard-bearers have won just once in six years.
Against that I believe the new system will improve things. There isn’t the same gap after the provincial final, which used to be four or five weeks, and all teams have played four matches in the province already so the danger of being undercooked isn’t as great.
Ultimately Limerick have been suited by the championship as well. They were better off avoiding the hype of winning Munster or even reaching the final. That grounded them and their focus against Kilkenny was excellent.
They will need to push up on Cork’s puck-outs, as they did in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, because if you let them play out they will cut loose – like they did in the first half against Tipperary and the second half of the Munster final against Clare.
I think if Limerick do that, the result will be a condensed middle third where they have exceptional players to win dirty ball. Cian Lynch is currently the best around at picking up ball in congested areas and ruck situations. Their half-forward line, and particularly Kyle Hayes, have improved since the night in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
They also possess the personnel to deal with the menace of Cork’s attack. I’d expect Seán Finn to pick up Patrick Horgan, who’s the key man in the full-forward line and their half backs are exceptionally good and wouldn’t have allowed Séamus Harnedy – who would be a huge loss for Cork if a reported injury keeps him out – the latitude he got against Clare.
Limerick’s bench has also proved its worth, especially against Kilkenny, and it looks strong enough to be a factor.
Cork have the experience but Limerick have the potential and have showed great resilience all season and I’m more inclined to go with them.