Nicky English: Limerick confirm their place at the top of hurling’s pecking order

Impressive Galway now look the best-equipped of the other All-Ireland contenders

Limerick’s Pat Ryan and Barry Nash celebrate after the Munster semi-final victory over Tipperary at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Limerick’s Pat Ryan and Barry Nash celebrate after the Munster semi-final victory over Tipperary at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

Despite the conditions in Cork, a winter storm to remind us that everything is different about this championship, a clear picture developed of hurling’s pecking order from the weekend’s matches with Limerick very much at the top and with Galway emerging as the team most likely to be their main challengers for the All-Ireland.

The conditions in Páirc Uí Chaoimh were really horrendous, as bad as we’ve ever seen, and with all the difficulties in preparation that was the final hurdle for players, coaches and managers to deal with.

First of all, you have to give credit to both Limerick and Tipperary for serving up as interesting a game as we’ve seen in this rapid-fire championship.

I was surprised Tipperary, having won the toss, chose to play against what was effectively a gale. I remember in the 1988 All-Ireland Final I chose to do the same and it’s not something I would ever again do again with a team. If you win the toss, you take whatever advantage there is and take it from there. That’s my feeling.

Limerick got to grips with the match conditions from early on and were stronger around the middle of the field. Will O’Donoghue was impressive and the switch of Cian Lynch to centre-half forward, while man marked by Alan Flynn, allowed him to dictate the game and importantly also dislodged Brendan Maher from centre-back.

Tom Morrissey too was impressive and Aaron Gillane looked dangerous. I’m not sure if switching Kyle Hayes to wing back worked, he wasn’t as involved as you would want him to be. But Limerick got the momentum early and, for me, the writing was on the wall from an early stage.

At the same time, Tipperary did recover and Jake Morris’s goal gave them hope in the run-up to half-time. However, Limerick always looked the better team and stretching it out to nine points at half-time gave them good breathing space.

I felt Limerick really showed their mettle playing into the wind in the second-half. Tipperary had a couple of frees from Jason Forde and Limerick were able to stretch it out again. Tipperary got a goal from John McGrath which shouldn’t have been allowed but even then the game was nearly gone.

The game was over for Tipperary after Gillane’s penalty which came from Gearóid Hegarty running at the Tipperary defence. He’s a monster in hurling terms and ably abetted by plenty more fine, strong players well practiced in close combat in the middle third.

Tipperary will be disappointed. The back door is an inconvenience they’ve come through before so you wouldn’t write them off but there are very worrying signs, particularly in the middle third.

Clear favourites

We haven’t seen Padraic Maher being replaced before and the forwards were out of ideas early. Séamie Callanan wasn’t able to score and the other big name Tipp players weren’t able to wrest the baton or power from Limerick at any stage.

Really, after the weekend I can see only Galway of the others threatening Limerick. None of the teams are out of the championship yet but Limerick are clear favourites. But there is something about Galway and they ultimately are likely to be the greatest challenge to Kiely’s side.

There’s no doubt the style of hurling is different in this Covid championship. All the teams are playing with two in the full-forward line, the middle third is crowded yet there are a huge number of players unmarked and loose and able to take mostly successful shots at goal leading to high scoring rates.

There appears to be a lot of unchallenged play but at the same time the championship is on and players are dealing with vastly different conditions in every way, not just pitch and weather conditions. Regardless, there is a clear pecking order developing and I find it hard to look outside Limerick or Galway. And, this year, with the rapid programme of qualifier games, winning the Munster or Leinster Championships is the way to go.

Waterford showed great application and were well-deserved winners over Cork. Cork’s workrate was poor last year and maybe with Kieran Kingston coming in there was a logic to think it could improve but they were as poor as they have been at any time over the last number of years. I felt they were leaderless and lost complete shape and Conor Lehane, Séamus Harnedy and Alan Cadogan were all replaced which told its own story.

Tadhg de Burca and Calum Lyons were both exceptional for Waterford, with de Burca having one of his best games ever, and with the support of Jamie Barron they were able to create a platform for a well-deserved victory. Liam Cahill should be delighted with the team effort.

To me, Galway look to be the team in Leinster. They have huge power and lots of talent in that forward division. Joe Canning was unerring from frees in the win over Wexford and Brian Concannon is adding a lot and the outstanding Conor Whelan looks ready to go to a higher level.

Wexford look to be down on previous editions and have very little new blood coming in. Galway have a new manager in Shane O’Neill and some new players and look strong contenders.

It was strange that Kilkenny had such a big lead and subsequently almost failed to close it out. But I was expecting Dublin to give Kilkenny a game and they are not going to be pushovers in the qualifiers for any of the teams and could settle in for a possible run in the backdoor.

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