Nicky English: Formidable Limerick have what it takes to book a final place
Other semi-final is harder to call but Wexford’s momentum may be difficult to halt
Limerick’s Peter Casey scores Limerick’s opening goal in the Munster final victory over Tipperary at the Gaelic Grounds. Casey is delivering on his considerable potential this year. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
It’s a sign of how competitive the championship has become that just one semi-finalist from last year has made it back, a turnover rate that’s only happened once in the 22 years since the championship expanded.
That team is Limerick and I thought Tipperary were set to put it up to them in the Munster final and beat them, as I was a little dubious about the All-Ireland champions’ form, mainly because of the defeat by Cork on their first outing. Anyway, those reservations were fairly blown to pieces on the Ennis Road four weeks ago.
Not only did they show why, at their best, they’re pretty much untouchable but the performance also suggested that they had a better grasp of the performance demands of the modern championship structure. They were able to raise their game in the Munster final, just as Tipp began to hit a downward curve, which didn’t lift significantly against Laois.
Limerick were excellent in all phases of play. Their middle eight backbones the team but at either end of the field they’re also formidable.
They’ve the best full-back line in the game and whereas up front we all know about Aaron Gillane from his league heroics and are aware that Graeme Mulcahy was in the frame – and arguably closer – for Hurler of the Year in 2018 but Peter Casey came in for the Munster final and generated a big impact.
Limerick people have long believed Casey was a superstar in the making but his rise was held back by struggle with injuries. Even with Na Piarsaigh, whereas he’s been good, he hasn’t always been able to be the force that many expected.
Last year his role was very much restricted to that of impact sub. This year with more game time, he’s started to find his way, which isn’t easy for anyone who’s been so disrupted by misfortune.
It was significant he was able to hit those points in the Munster final into the City End because it showed his confidence was coming back to meet his talent and that he was now comfortable.
He not alone has great skill – as is obvious from his scores – but brilliant awareness of what’s going on around him. He is not the biggest but he is very physically powerful and it’s a clear indication of the strength of the Limerick panel that he’s keeping out Séamus Flanagan, who made such a contribution to the All-Ireland win but who hasn’t been able to get there this year.
Darragh O’Donovan was one of the best midfielders around 12 months ago but has lost his place to Will O’Donoghue so it’s a very potent panel John Kiely has built. They mightn’t have great cover in defence but most other counties are scratching around to get 15 on the field, never mind back-up.
Against them is the dire record of Munster champions in All-Ireland semi-finals. They’ve lost nine of the last 12 and Tipp have won the other three, leading to the only All-Ireland title won by the province’s standard-bearers in that time, back in 2016.
If Limerick are good enough, they’ll crash through that barrier like Tipperary did but it asks questions of the Munster championship. Cork won the last two and they didn’t build on it – although they’re the only side to beat Limerick this year in championship.
Kilkenny are improving and since the Leinster final they’ve acquired a bit of depth, mostly through the return of influential players from injury. Walter Walsh had a great second half against Cork and Richie Hogan brings significant improvement.
Cillian Buckley has had another couple of weeks to shake off his issues and overall it’s a big improvement on the Leinster final and indicates expanded options in the middle third where they have to challenge Limerick.
Still, the sum of their parts isn’t what it was and even though they did well in the quarter-final, Cork were a one- or two-man band but managed to do a fair bit of damage.
When the counties met in the league in Nowlan Park, the champions overwhelmed Kilkenny. All available data points to them being simply a better team.
Sunday is far harder to call. Back in May just after the first week of the championship, I met Mags D’Arcy, the Wexford coach, in UCD, and she said that Tipp, who had just beaten Cork, spectacularly, looked like they were going to be a force.
I politely asked her how were Wexford, who hadn’t played at that stage, and she said that they were going well and had high ambitions.
“You could win Leinster,”I said.
“More ambitious than that,” she replied.
How right she was. They’re the only unbeaten team left in the championship and have improved dramatically on 2018. Galway couldn’t handle Parnell Park but Wexford were unlucky only to draw there. They have efficiently handled Kilkenny in two matches, most impressively beating them in the Leinster final.
Their shooting accuracy then – three wides – does beg a question: can a team, which thrives on energy and creating chances rather than clinical conversion rates maintain that standard of shooting?
Tipperary aren’t playing that well but they have an inside line that gets their scores more easily. Even when Limerick were all over them in the Munster final the ability to take scores kept them afloat. John McGrath’s goal actually levelled the match as late as the third quarter and had Séamus Callanan taken his chance, they could have kept going even longer.
Wexford bring huge work-rate and ball winning ability and Lee Chin’s free-taking has greatly improved but they don’t carry the same scoring power. Their style of play, as encouraged by Davy Fitz, is usually caricatured as being ultra-defensive but it simply means they build attacks from farther back and tend not to be taking scores in the full-forward line.
They have a greater than average spread of scorers, players like Paudie Foley and Dee O’Keeffe, but a team’s most confident forwards are generally close to goal.
How do you assess Tipp’s form? Their best day was against Cork, who proved a very fragile force in this year’s championship, and was nearly three months ago. The spine of the team may be the oldest in the championship but with that comes valuable experience. Their greater goalscoring capacity could also help them take control early in the game.
My view is however that if it’s a tight finish, Wexford have confidence and a likely big crowd to drive them. When I managed Tipperary in the All-Ireland year in 2001, we needed a replay to beat Wexford in the semi-finals. The only reason we didn’t lose the first day was that they ran out of time when all the momentum was with them.
Unfortunately for Tipp this weekend, I don’t think they’re going to have it won early. I suspect that in a tense closing 10 minutes, a Wexford team that doesn’t score goals as easily will nonetheless have a momentum that may be decisive.