Nicky English: Limerick still the team to beat as provincial finals approach

Dublin look unlikely to be able to rack up the points needed to topple Kilkenny in Leinster

Limerick’s Kyle Hayes, Sean Finn and Richie English celebrate winning a free against Cork. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Limerick’s Kyle Hayes, Sean Finn and Richie English celebrate winning a free against Cork. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

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Saturday evening’s Leinster final brings together two improved teams. I didn’t foresee Dublin winning that semi-final with Galway. My view of Mattie Kenny’s team has been that they don’t score enough and their impressive total against Antrim didn’t change my mind.

That scoring turned out to be a good sign, though. I’m not sure that Dublin got enough credit for the semi-final performance, as reaction was dominated by Galway’s deficiencies - hardly surprisingly for a team widely rated to be Limerick’s top challengers this year.

Dublin’s defence has always been good but Eoghan O’Donnell would be a huge loss if not fit and it is difficult to see how the injury that forced him out of the semi-final could have cleared up in a fortnight.

The burden on Cian O’Callaghan and Liam Rushe will be correspondingly heavier, particularly as Kilkenny’s improvement is forward driven. TJ Reid was clearly in need of support up front and the return of Adrian Mullen from long-term injury and the maturing of another Ballyhale forward, Eoin Cody, have delivered that.

Mullen is such a good hurler and Cody was really impressive in the semi-final, able to win ball, hold it up and run at the Wexford defence. They are two Young Hurlers of the Year - Cody the current holder whose emergence last year got lost as attention quickly turned from Kilkenny’s defeat by Waterford to Christmas shopping.

Brian Cody’s teams have always been more than the sum of their parts. This season the sum of their parts now looks greater. Dublin will need to improve on the Galway performance. They’ve rattled Kilkenny in recent years and the power and athleticism of Danny Sutcliffe and Chris Crummey in the half forwards will put it up to the champions.

Ultimately my reservations are that a team needs the guts of 30 points to win matches nowadays. Who’s more likely to get it? I’m not sure it’s Dublin.

Munster final

On Sunday in Cork, the Munster final brings together the counties with four of the last five All-Irelands. Before the semi-finals Limerick looked overwhelmingly likely to make it three-in-a-row in the province despite some misgivings about their league campaign.

They looked to have improved physically by the Cork match but in the final quarter they were looking fairly bedraggled in the very area that’s usually their power source, the half forwards and midfield. They looked under pressure and Cork had a great chance to go at them.

Their full-back line got them out of the crisis and they eventually ran out comfortable winners but as a performance it left doubts for me.

On all known form over the past couple of years Limerick are fair step ahead of Tipperary. Even in the first league game when Tipp were obviously fitter, Limerick got back for a draw.

Having watched them beating Clare, I thought Tipperary were in way better shape than in 2020. They played snappy hurling even if they didn’t always finish and although the controversial penalty decision helped to put them in control and they had to weather a strong Clare pushback, I thought they were comfortable.

There was a lot to like. They were strong at the back and in general terms at least as good as I expected if not a little bit better. I believe the gap of 2019 and 2020 is only achievable if Limerick get back to top form.

Dublin’s Donal Burke is challenged by Antrim’s Eoghan Campbell. Photograph: John McVitty/Inpho
Dublin’s Donal Burke is challenged by Antrim’s Eoghan Campbell. Photograph: John McVitty/Inpho

Have they got that stamina base to drive the energy on display in their middle third, which overran Tipperary in 2019 and summarily dismissed them last November in Páirc Uí Chaoimh? If they have, they win. No doubt.

Tipp though look a bit better than last year and I expect them to perform a lot better. Problems remain. John McGrath was a vital part of the 2016 win and to an extent the 2019 follow-up but his starting place has been under scrutiny. That’s not good news for Liam Sheedy given how formidable the Limerick full-backs were against Cork and the necessity for goals if anyone’s going to bring down the champions.

The gap may have closed but the fact remains that Limerick are going to have to underperform significantly if Tipperary are to bridge it completely.

Today (Saturday) in Semple Stadium is a significant game. Either Clare or Wexford will fold their tents for the last time this season. It’s hard to call but one thing is that I’d say Davy Fitzgerald was hoping for somewhere like Nowlan Park and not to have to go Thurles where Wexford traditionally don’t like playing and where they haven’t been for quite a while.

Controversial circumstances

Clare on the other hand, just played and won a championship match there a couple of weeks ago, a decent win against Waterford without scoring what they might have. Two weeks ago in Limerick against Tipp they scored nearly everything but lost in controversial circumstances when a decision went against them. All told it leaves them not in bad shape coming into this.

Wexford did an awful lot right against Kilkenny but again in a big match, their style of play and the demands it puts on wing backs and wing forwards in particular, drained them for extra-time but it was desperately close.

Remember if Hawk-Eye hadn’t called a point for Liam Ryan, instead of a rebound for Conor McDonald’s ‘goal’ at the death, it would have gone down as one of the great events in Wexford’s championship history.

The team’s spine of Liam Ryan, Matt O’Hanlon, Lee Chin and Rory O’Connor performed well and all contributed to an outstanding match with Kilkenny so I don’t see them as also-rans.

It’s a close call. Wexford will need a plan - a better one than last year - for Tony Kelly given his form of late and I was also impressed by Mark Rodgers coming off the bench. Clare could do with Shane O’Donnell back from concussion but that’s unlikely to happen this weekend.

Their defence was vulnerable and Tipp cut them apart at times but this will be more evenly contested. I have a slight preference for Clare. All of their forwards scored the last day and for me, they just carry more threat.

Finally, it was a great day for Cheddar Plunkett last weekend. The win over Antrim means that their work is essentially done for the 2021 and they get a free shot at this but I expect to see a big improvement from Waterford, who will be hoping to get Conor Prunty and Jamie Barron back up and running.

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