Nicky English: Limerick can master spirited Cork’s potent challenge

Champions remain the team to beat while Galway, Kilkenny and Tipperary can advance

League form was always going to be particularly suspect this year and so it proved last weekend.

Waterford signed off in great form by beating Tipperary on the last day but last week came unstuck. You could argue that Clare had built momentum in the league but for me the key filter is to look at the other side.

Waterford’s win didn’t stand up to scrutiny perhaps and that probably had to do with the cycle of training Tipperary were at the week before.

This is of particular relevance to the weekend's big match between All-Ireland champions Limerick and Cork. In general Limerick had a poor-ish league and the big improvement at the end is based on evidence of a match against Cork.


What was their opponents’ attitude going into this match?

We know Kieran Kingston made a lot of changes that night and they were well hammered by Limerick, who looked as if they had rediscovered their form. Cork then went in search of a performance against Galway in the last match to set them up for the championship.

Having not shown their hand in Limerick they played it against Galway but failed to win.

The reason Limerick started the league so badly was that they took a full break after the All-Ireland and they looked it – out of shape and poor discipline. If they come out tonight in flying form, it will confirm them as frontrunners but only John Kiely and his selectors really know where they are just as only Kieran Kingston knows if Cork have been holding back.

It's clichéd at this stage but Cork have a decent championship record against Limerick in recent years and still haven't lost to them over 70 minutes since the 2013 Munster final. In that 2018 All-Ireland semi-final they led by six with eight minutes left before being dragged to extra time.

So it's safe to say that they won't feel intimidated by the champions' formidable reputation. There's no doubt that in their games in the league, they targeted goals and that's what they'll try to do in Thurles.

Their big weapon is pace and they have it everywhere from Tim O'Mahony, who's an outstanding player at wing back to Jack O'Connor in the forwards. Darragh Fitzgibbon, Shane Kingston and Robbie O'Flynn also have high gears but will they all play? Who knows Cork's best six forwards?

Their centre back Mark Coleman is a very good hurler but how will he handle Cian Lynch, who in the league absolutely ran the show? Both can hurl beautifully but Lynch can orchestrate damage. Cork can't afford a repeat of his showing.

Limerick’s half backs are imperious on the front foot but how will they cope if turned and forced to defend? Doing that is key to finding a way to goal and I’m backing Cork to find a performance and goals that will make this interesting. I’m not however expecting the Limerick half backs to crack under the pressure and the champions will progress.

Obvious contenders

Like last year Galway look the most obvious contenders and also look like they’ve improved. They are the one team that can match the champions’ combination of power, pace and hurling. They haven’t always found Dublin straightforward and lost to the metropolitans two years ago.

Mattie Kenny must be pleased by how well they scored against Antrim. They also have a full-back line as good as it gets in Smyth, O'Donnell and Cian O'Callaghan but Galway bring a different level of menace this year.

For all the hurling and all of the work they did in the Leinster final last year, they didn't put Kilkenny away but they're getting better returns from the attack this year and I don't see Dublin stopping them.

Wexford emulated Dublin by putting up a big score. The level of their performance against Laois was light years ahead of the league fixture and Lee Chin and Conor McDonald were in great shape, fit and eager. The team was awfully flat last year and they haven't many changes in personnel but the recent rivalry with Kilkenny has been intense.

Their league fixture was only a few weeks ago but applying the filter I was referring to, it’s not clear what level Wexford were at or what they were at in general.

Kilkenny aren't what they were but they've taken scalps in the last two years, including Galway last winter. Adrian Mullen is back as a much-needed auxiliary for TJ Reid, which means they are definitely improved on 2020. They're consistent and I think capable of winning this.

On Sunday Clare take on Tipperary. Last week's win was necessary for Brian Lohan given Waterford's weakness and the video review will have been mixed. Their scoring and shot selection were ridiculously off but this is all stuff they can work on.

Tipp still have better reputations but this is a test of where they are

Tony Kelly did what he always does, Cathal Malone was excellent at midfield and Clare were physically stronger than I've seen them in a couple of years.

Tipp still have better reputations but this is a test of where they are. Their league was underwhelming and their scoring rate lower than needed in the current game. With Kelly and any fair value from what they missed last week, Clare have potential for both goals and around 25 or 26 points.

Their option to go long will have to be influenced by Tipperary’s comfort under high ball. Either of the Mahers, Ronan or Pádraic, and Barry Heffernan are brilliant in the air. Aran Shanagher is also excellent but those deliveries will be contested.

I think Tipp are in better shape than last year and that they will win but they have to rediscover their scoring touch.