Nicky English: Extraordinary day of hurling leaves championship wide open

Some worrying signs for Limerick while Kilkenny look dangerous at Croke Park

Kilkenny’s Walter Walsh celebrates scoring a goal during their Leinster SHC semi-final win over Wexford. Photo: Brian Reilly-Troy/Inpho

Kilkenny’s Walter Walsh celebrates scoring a goal during their Leinster SHC semi-final win over Wexford. Photo: Brian Reilly-Troy/Inpho

 

An extraordinary day for the hurling championship: if you were told on Saturday morning that Limerick would beat Cork by eight and Galway lose to Dublin, the instinct would be to hand over the Liam MacCarthy.

But there were worrying signs for Limerick in Thurles on Saturday night, even though winning when playing poorly is gold standard for champions and leaves plenty of room for improvement.

The Kilkenny-Wexford match at Croke Park was absolutely brilliant and restored faith in modern hurling at a time when it has been questioned for various reasons. Ultimately it was decided in extra time by Kilkenny’s superior bench and the energy demands of Wexford’s playing system - a bit like their 2019 defeat by Tipperary.

By then we had already seen the result of the season to date. Dublin’s win over Galway was phenomenal for them, dogged and powerful but also emotional in the light of bereavements suffered by James Madden, who played virtually the entire game after burying his father on Friday, and manager Mattie Kenny, whose brother-in-law died.

Dublin manager Mattie Kenny celebrates after the game with James Madden. Photo: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Dublin manager Mattie Kenny celebrates after the game with James Madden. Photo: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

If Waterford’s eclipse by Clare created a suspicion about the reliability of this year’s league, Saturday was the full indictment. Most of the six teams either comfortably out-performed league form or considerably under-performed it. Probably not too surprising given the rushed nature of the return to play.

Another interesting footnote was the degree to which teams survived the sin bin in Croke Park and Thurles. In fact I’d argue it helped Limerick. The natural instinct is for teams reduced to 14 to up their work-rate and that seemed to kick-start the champions.

Firstly, Nickie Quaid made a great penalty save - as crucial an intervention in its own way as stopping Séamus Harnedy in the All-Ireland semi-final three years ago - and keeping out Patrick Horgan’s strike clearly lifted Limerick.

Cork also chose Mark Coleman as the spare man and switched Niall O’Leary, who’d been doing well on the sin-binned Peter Casey, onto Cian Lynch, who had been subdued by his standards.

It seemed to kick-start Lynch, who was hugely influential in the period before half-time when his vision created the first goal for Darragh O’Donovan, also helped by a treacherous deflection off Seán O’Donoghue.

Seconds later Kyle Hayes, who was a real driver for Limerick, got up the field to remind us of his past life in the forwards with a great strike for a second gaol. The energy of this phase turned the match on its head and gave Limerick a killer six-point lead for the second half, which had to be demoralising for Cork.

It was an open secret that Kieran Kingston’s team had identified goals as the route to an against-the-odds victory and in the first quarter that was on track after Shane Kingston finished off a good break by O’Leary.

After that, however, there was little by way of threat. I was very disappointed by Cork’s attack. It lacked conviction and accuracy even in point-taking let alone threatening any more goals.

This goes down as an opportunity missed because Limerick were there for the taking for a lot of the second half but Cork couldn’t get the margin any lower than four. As soon as they hit a couple of points and Shane Barrett did well coming on as a sub, they would follow it up with wides.

Limerick’s Kyle Hayes and Sean Finn celebrate winning a free against Darragh Fitzgibbon of Cork. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho
Limerick’s Kyle Hayes and Sean Finn celebrate winning a free against Darragh Fitzgibbon of Cork. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

Patrick Horgan had a nightmare evening with poorly struck frees, as well as missing the penalty and Eoin Cadogan hit a particularly aimless wide at one stage. The frustration for Cork is that they had the champions teetering on the brink for a long time without actually giving them the final push.

What went wrong for Limerick? Their twin towers Ger Hegarty and Tom Morrissey had no consistency. Morrissey really struggled and both of them were taken off. I had never seen Limerick run out of gas to that extent and I wonder did their late return to training have an effect.

Obviously that can improve but this season will last just a few weeks and John Kiely will need to find full revs for 70 minutes.

On the plus side there is plenty to work on and yet again their fullback line gave a masterclass with Seán Finn, probably the best corner back in the country, leading the way. When things are going wrong a team needs players to take hold of a match and Finn and in fairness Hayes at wing back did that.

They need to be careful though. There are teams who will put them away if they offer the opportunities that they gave Cork.

Kilkenny look to be one of them. I think they’re stronger this year with Adrian Mullen now getting back to his best after injury and I was interested to James Maher come in and do so well off the bench. He is a quality player who, if he stays injury-free, is another improvement.

Eoin Cody also came of age and looked dangerous all the way through, proving it with the extra-time goal. They don’t look as dependent on TJ Reid and that bodes well.

Their more economical style gave them a big advantage in extra time because players like Liam Óg McGovern and Rory O’Connor had worked themselves to a standstill for Wexford. Their system asks a lot of the body, particularly when their subs don’t make much of an impact.

I think the referee Fergal Horgan deserves credit too. He let the game go without allowing it to descend into chaos.

Galway are the big losers. They went for goals early on and the failure to get them both inspired Dublin and appeared to create doubts in their own minds. It’s strange how much of a problem they have experienced in this fixture during a decade when they finally won an All-Ireland and performed strongly in championships whereas Dublin have never really threatened at that level but lead the head-to-head 4-3 with one draw - and recently added an under-20 victory in Leinster.

Dublin executed an Ali-style rope-a-dope and when Galway had blown themselves out they counter-punched to devastating effect. One dark cloud is the injury to Eoghan O’Donnell. He’s been stellar at full back and they really need him fit for the Leinster final.

Galway will probably be someone’s nightmare in the qualifiers but Saturday proved that when presumed outcomes are rudely confronted there are no stops on the line between over-confidence and panic.

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