Of the eight teams doing Championship battle this weekend, only Tipp and Limerick are guaranteed to progress.
If Tipp win in Thurles, irrespective of the result in Ennis, Cork will also progress because it will be scoring difference that decides the final two places and Limerick (+31) and Cork (+13) are well in front of the Banner at minus 30.
Clare will be hoping that Limerick win and that they beat Cork. In that scenario, Cork and Clare will be on four points each. It will be the ‘head to head’ result that count and the Rebels would lose out with Clare taking the third spot, Tipp in second and the Treaty on top.
If both Cork and Limerick win, the top three teams would all be on six points with Tipp and Limerick contesting the Munster final.
This would be my preference if I was involved with Cork.
If there are two draws, Clare lose out and Tipp and Cork will contest the Munster final and Limerick follow last year's pathway.
In Leinster, if Dublin (on three points) beat Galway (on five points), and if there is a winner between Wexford (4) and Kilkenny (4), the loser in Wexford Park exits the competition. If Dublin win and it's a tie in Wexford Park, it will come down to scoring difference. Galway would have the lowest score difference and lose out. Kilkenny, with the best score difference, would top the group with Wexford second and the Dubs in third spot. If Galway win, the victor in the Wexford/Kilkenny game will meet them in the final. If the two games are tied the Dubs will bow out.
So still all to play for with both Munster and Leinster competitions nicely poised. We could have four crackers this weekend and they are badly needed to redeem this season's less than exciting round-robin series, in which only Limerick v Cork and Kilkenny v Galway set the pulses racing.
However, it's worth remembering that last season the championships only really took off at the provincial final stage and only three round-robin games in Munster - Limerick v Cork, Tipp v Cork and Tipp v Clare were top contests. In Leinster Dublin v Kilkenny and Wexford v Dublin were excellent while all others were ordinary at best. That’s five out of twenty, only 25%. Three 'real championship' games this weekend will give the same total of real round robin contests as 2018.
Tipp know they are in the Munster final and manager Liam Sheedy has selection options. However, he will play his strongest team and win the game, if possible. Tipp are playing at home and success brings confidence. Building a strong rapport with the supporters is also important to the manager. If you lose because you're not good enough, it is easily explained. Losing because you selected a weaker team will only be acceptable to fans if results further down the line justify the action. On the other hand, Limerick manager John Kiely has made changes with regulars Cian Lynch, Graeme Mulcahy and Declan Hannon absent. Of course, it is not a must-win game for Limerick and keeping something in the locker, which may be needed later, is a good ploy.
Recently, Ireland’s ‘numero uno’ hurling writer, Enda Mc Evoy, asked what Tipp will do “when required to sing for their supper” and “when the opposition forwards wire into them? When the half-back line are clearing the ball under pressure…” Tomorrow is such a day.
We all know how Limerick will play. On the ball, they use short hand passes to colleagues making triangular support runs from defence to retain possession as they move forward. They work it to runners Gearóid Hegarty or the roving Kyle Hayes to run at defences. Alternatively, they find a “postman” in space. Regularly, it is Diarmaid Byrnes. He delivers the ball ‘gift wrapped’ to his inside forwards Peter Casey, Seamus Flanagan or (more often) Aaron Gillane. Off the ball, their forwards funnel back and they close opponents down by quickly surrounding the man in possession and frequently using their free hand, liberally, to dispossess them, creating morale-boosting Treaty turnovers.
Tipp have massive firepower. However, when playing Limerick, what you bring when you haven't the ball is more important than your use of possession, as breaking their system is vital. Tipp are physically strong. Getting stuck into Limerick and forcing them to clear under pressure from defence - rather than delivering forward with time - is the baseline for any victory over the Treaty. Of course, running at their defence, which Tipp are extremely good, is also essential.
In Ennis tomorrow, it's fairly simple. It will have nothing to do with tactics. This game is all about application, determination, heart and commitment. In Sparta, a son heading into battle was reminded by his mother to 'return with your shield - or on it. This must be the final statement of the Clare management, making it into a frenetic contest of willpower. Cork need to be steely and play as they did recently against Limerick, meeting fire with fire.
Nothing less will do but it will be important for them to remember Kipling’s famous advice: 'Keep your head when all about you are losing theirs'.