Not to put too fine a point on it but Kilkenny won the All-Ireland quarter-final largely because they were playing — and were allowed to play by and play through — Cork. Not to put too fine a point on it but they’re unlikely to win the All-Ireland semi-final largely because they’ll be playing — and will not be allowed to play by and play through — Limerick.
If Cork were a girl they’d be the bubbly, amiable blonde that everyone likes. A grand evening guaranteed for both of you. If Limerick were a girl they’d be a dominatrix, tall and dark and forbidding. Can it be that simple? Can it be that simplistic? Should we all just stay at home tonight?
Of this much we can be certain. One of the main findings of Brian McDonnell’s ‘Green Monster’ study has been validated by recent events. Limerick win when their energy output and tackle count hit the levels they’ve set for themselves. Such was not the case at home to Cork and away to Tipperary: They lost. It was against Waterford, Clare and in the Munster final: They won. Get the blocks, hooks, and shoulders in this evening and they’ll win. QED.
Again, can it be that simple?
There is no reason to fear that the four-week break will upset them. The doubts expressed here on the eve of the Munster final about Limerick’s ability to turn the switch on and off as they desired were routed. Paul Kinnerk adjusts the immersion with a firm hand and a light touch. The defeats to Cork and Tipp occurred because they were pacing themselves to win a marathon, not because they’d been guzzling the finest wines available to humanity.
Theirs is a forward line without a single luxury item. They all displace water, even Graeme Mulcahy — with his penchant for stealing in from behind in both halves of the field and getting in a hook or a block — and Peter Casey. Brian Cody would be proud to claim ownership. Cian Lynch’s second-half point against Tipp, when Jake Morris was buried by a retreating Kyle Hayes who popped a short ball to Lynch, may stand the test of time as the team’s showpiece score.
Lesser outfits might have dropped their heads when finding themselves somehow still level after 44 minutes that afternoon. Lesser teams do not possess the pounding relentlessness that saw the MacCarthy Cup holders pull away to win by at least as much as they were entitled to. This was no dazzling, withering gear change a la the Kilkenny of old. John Kiely’s charges simply kept on doing what they’d been doing. Trust the process.
Casey needed to produce a big performance and he did, benefiting from the size disparity with James Barry. This was a match-up Kiely judged to perfection. He may choose to deploy Aaron Gillane, apparently 6kg heavier than last season, on Huw Lawlor tonight. Kilkenny will also have to be wise to their opponents’ movement under the puckout, a new trick entailing Gearóid Hegarty standing off and picking up the pieces before venturing forward as a ram raider.
Midfield will throw Cian Lynch and Richie Leahy together. Both excel at sniffing out the sliotar and carrying it into contact. Leahy, who helped turn the quarter-final when moved there for the second half, needs to improve his decision making in possession; Lynch, who probably doesn’t shoot often enough, is well on the way to becoming a national treasure but in his determination to make every touch a filigree touch he occasionally takes too much out of the ball. Limerick must not overdo the short passing in this zone.
Elsewhere the favourites possess the poise of Mike Casey, who can play off both the back foot and the front, and the challengers the genius of TJ Reid, well in line for the Oscar for Most Frees Converted for Fouls on the Player Himself. Kilkenny also have Eoin Murphy, without whom the margin in last year’s All-Ireland quarter-final might have been 10 points instead of two. With this in mind the champions may be content to pick off their points rather than roll the dice with Murphy.
Although it’s a mild wonder that Shane Dowling, their designated closer, is not accompanied onto the field by his personal theme tune, as in baseball, Limerick are not inevitable winners if the game is to be decided off the bench. Kilkenny prosecuted a 20-man game against Cork and did so with patience and intelligence. It was Cody’s best day on the line for a long time and one that was required after the Richie Hogan contretemps in the Leinster final. They have three subs who’ll ask questions of the opposition defence if called on.
Cillian Buckley apart, the stripey men have finally stumbled on their optimum XV or near enough and are approaching as much critical mass as they can muster. Against any other opponents, their momentum might see them through. Against this boa constrictor of a team, not so.
In the weeks that followed their victory in the 1996 Leinster final Wexford did something that, whatever its scope for the grotesque and the bizarre, was unprecedented and — in the eyes of Tom Dempsey anyway — unbelievable. They did… tactics.Esoteric, huh?
Damien Fitzhenry as a sweeper keeper. Rory McCarthy as a floating, space-creating wing-forward. Billy Byrne trotting into the edge of the square with the task of making the first ball stick. All the little bells and whistles they’d never had the opportunity to try bolting on before because they’d never come out of Leinster before.
One can only imagine what kind of heaven Davy has been in since June 30th. A whole month’s worth of mind-expanding tactical possibilities in one go. Way out, maaaan. All his Christmases at once.
The issue tomorrow is not whether his boys will come on a few lengths from their run last time out — inevitably they will — but rather by how much they do so. This in turn is in Davy’s gift. Is there a danger he’ll become ensnared in complicated webs of his own devising? It is the obvious worry.
In their two All-Ireland quarter-finals on his watch Wexford died, slowly and unattractively, with their flip flops on. It was the direct result of the manager overthinking and disappearing up his own posterior. Davy has to be smart tomorrow; he cannot be too smart for his own good.
Wexford must go for it, which doesn’t mean throwing 10 men into the attack and leaving the front door unguarded. Nobody will point a finger at them if they lose; unlike with those two dismal quarter-final no-shows, however, they mustn’t die wondering.
Front up to Tipperary and you never know what might happen.
A month ago this would have been a case of a middleweight taking on a heavyweight. Now it’s a case of provincial champions versus a team demolished in a provincial decider.
That the tank would run dry on Liam Sheedy against super-fit opponents on a warm day in high summer was an eventuality that had been flagged. That a healthy percentage of pundits went for his boys in the Munster final despite everything — the absence of Patrick Maher and Cathal Barrett, the inevitability of a different Limerick to the Semple Stadium iteration a fortnight previously, the greater chance consequently of that warm-day scenario unfolding — said something about the credit Tipp had banked in their previous four outings and the respect for the stash of TNT in their forward line.
It could have been worse. It could have been mortal. They fell to earth at the Gaelic Grounds, with its back door, rather than in Croke Park, with no mulligan. Their early-summer aura of scariness has evaporated but Tipperary remain a going concern, highly-armed and dangerous.
Against opponents whosiphon bodies back the way Wexford do, they’re even more of a threat given the presence of the Maher brothers in the half-back line. Get Bubbles to drift out to midfield and that’s four snipers Sheedy will have at long range. Nothing is more calculated to unyoke a sweeper system than the concession of points from distance.
Barrett will be instructed to get up the field. It won’t be a surprise if he finishes with 0-1 to his name.
For the first time in decades, Wexford have three players capable of stringing together necklaces of points from play: Diarmuid O’Keeffe, Rory O’Connor, and Conor McDonald. Figures compiled by statistician Barry Cleary put their shooting accuracy against Kilkenny at 71%, a championship high under Davy, with McDonald bagging 1-12 from 17 shots in Leinster, a significant improvement on the last two seasons.
Their accuracy from frees is up 7%.
A team configured like Wexford necessarily operate on fine lines and narrow margins. They’ve been improving the margins in every place they can. They needed to get more players forward, they needed to create more scoring opportunities and they needed to convert a greater proportion of those shots. They’ve succeeded on all counts.
But then there’s the three wides of the Leinster final; the blemish-free first quarter and last quarter; and Lee Chin’s eight points from nine placed balls (the other dropped short). These feats are surely unrepeatable. Wexford folk who still haven’t got over the trauma of the 1993 Leinster final won’t need reminding that Martin Storey landed three points from sideline cuts in the drawn game. Unrepeatable. Unrepeated.
The underdogs will confine Tipperary to a beatable tally, if only because Davy will be apoplectic if they fail such a basic requirement.
Yet in their determination to prevent goals they mayconcede too many lazy frees, their deliveries out of defence in the closing stages against Kilkenny were too high and too slow and too hanging, while the sight of posters of the senior and minor teams contained in the local papers this week prompted a hmmm.
Above all, Tipp boast any number of wand wielders who can lacquer the kind of30-metre passes that will unstitch a defence and in Tommy Dunne and Eamon O’Shea two men who’ll ensure the wristwork is burnished to a dazzle.
Tipperary to be coached and Wexford over-coached? If not that, then Tipperary better able to extemporise?
Tipp have the class. Obviously. It is the last thing they will lose. But Wexford have drunk Davy’s Miwadi and eaten his biscuits. Trust the process.
They also have the legs and will spend the afternoon trying to open avenues in the opposition defence. How many times in training had Shaun Murphy played the dink diagonal over the top that fissured the Kilkenny defence for the penalty?
It has been a summer fizzing with mild surprises, victories for the 6/4 shot against the 4/6 shot and wins in 55/45 scenarios for the 45er. Neither Limerick nor Tipp are 4/9 shots this weekend. Particularly not Tipp. It’s a 55/45 shout in their favour.
Us? We’re going to live on the edge.
Wexford have done enough to merit the call.