Nicky English: Limerick will never have a better chance to take down Kilkenny
John Kiely’s side will be fresher but psychologically battle will also be key
Cian Lynch has impressed in the middle of the park for Limerick. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
We’ve had a lot of hurling so far and there has been a huge effort and renewed focus put into the Munster and Leinster championships this year but, really, this is where the All-Ireland starts.
I mean, who can remember who were provincial champions a few years ago? What matters ultimately is who wins the All-Ireland and at this stage of the championship I would argue Limerick and Wexford are in as good a position as any team who played in the provincial finals.
This is a huge game for Limerick against Kilkenny and I have a lot of sympathy for Brian Cody’s team going into Sunday’s encounter at Semple Stadium. That draw in the Leinster final was a bad result given they lost the replay with Galway and it means they’re playing a third big match in three weeks. As we saw during the round-robin games, it is beyond contradiction in 2018 that a hurling team’s level of performance drops significantly playing for the third week in a row.
Against that backdrop, John Kiely’s side are coming in fresh and their loss to Clare might have been a blessing in disguise. Limerick were on their third week against Clare in Ennis and they have had a chance to freshen up and haven’t had to be involved in a Munster final, the result of which can over-excite or totally deflate the Limerick psyche. It means they’ve been able to slip back into the shadows, got a run-out in the win over Carlow and can come into this huge game for them a lot fresher.
Even though Limerick didn’t get to the final, I’d suggest they had arguably the most impressive performances in the Munster round-robin stage. They were very good against Tipperary, and particularly so against Cork in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
Cian Lynch ran the show and was dominant in the middle; Séamus Flanagan and Graeme Mulcahy in the forwards looked very good that night. They didn’t look anywhere near that form against Clare but had the excuse of the third week. Shane Dowling had come into the full-forward line and, when Tom Condon was sent off, they got it tactically wrong because Dowling was not as mobile as required in the one-man formation they played.
Limerick do have questions to answer based on that Clare performance but in earlier league and round-robin games they’ve shown a great willingness to hang in, a capability to get good scores and tremendous energy.
Lynch provides a good platform in the middle and Tom Morrissey and Kyle Hayes have shown great movement and an ability to score in their half-forward line. It’s a young team and this is a huge game for Limerick and getting to an All-Ireland semi-final and its Croke Park experience is a key requirement for their development. To do that, they’re going to have to beat Kilkenny. This opposition makes it tougher psychologically for Limerick (and everyone else!) but the plus side is that Limerick will have a significant scalp should they make it through.
Last year Kilkenny beat Limerick readily in Nowlan Park but Limerick never looked like they had any belief they could beat Kilkenny there. Limerick played second fiddle on the field, and mentally also played second fiddle, and that’s the key issue now for them to overcome.
Kilkenny are no doubt more battle-hardened in the last couple of weeks and really fought it out to the very end against Galway. There’s one thing you can be sure about Kilkenny: they will get to their ceiling of potential, they will compete regardless of the ask. That’s the magic of Cody, that his teams play to their absolute potential. However, there has to be some element of fatigue after those titanic games with Galway.
I have sympathy for them. I think the hurling championship in general is too rushed and, having to play three weeks in a row, with the quarter-finals coming so fast, I wonder for teams losing a provincial final is that ample reward for their performances in the round-robin series?
Kilkenny are likely to be without Walter Walsh, which would be a big loss. Their defence improved a lot in the games with Galway and James Maher in midfield has come on a lot. But the forwards need an injection. They got it last week with Richie Hogan and Colin Fennelly coming on at half-time, with Fennelly set to play from the start against Limerick.
I think Limerick are a coming force and are more mature and experienced that in the corresponding game in Nowlan Park last summer; crucially they have improved in the half-forward line and the team’s overall energy could be a problem for Kilkenny and could help them get over the line.
I do think the Clare-Wexford match will be even tighter. It’s hard to call, a real toss-up. I went for Clare to win the Munster final which was unusual for me as I haven’t picked them much over the last few years. But their form pre-Munster final suggested the improvement was there. However, I may have just discounted the fact they beat Limerick on their third rotation and Tipperary were playing their fourth game in a row.
John Conlon and Peter Duggan led the early charge in the Cork game but as the game went on, and Cork got a greater grip in the half-back line and around the middle of the field, the supply drained up to Conlon and I felt the team reverted to type to their 2014-2017 form having plenty of possession but being unable to capitalise on it.
Wexford’s form has not got anywhere near where it got to in 2017 and this second season with Davy Fitzgerald in charge has really levelled out. Against Kilkenny they had a good lead and faded out and key forwards missed good chances with their free-taking again proving unreliable.
I have no doubt Davy will have targeted this and will want to win. There’s very little between the teams and, while Clare’s second-half performance in the Munster final worried me when their defence came under pressure, I will stick with Clare on the basis their half-back line will be improved and they have a greater spread of scorers from number eight up.