Re-engaging with a team recently met is one of hurling’s hardest tasks. Familiarity breeds apprehension, a mixture of knowledge and fear. Foreknowledge of a challenge tightens margins of error. The other team, especially if defeated in the earlier outing, appreciates exactly what is required for reversal of this result.
You could think of the dark interpretation given to Vera Lynn’s ‘We’ll Meet Again’, of a mafioso in the dock whistling this tune as one of their number turns state’s evidence. Championship knockout offers Sicilian revenge.
This weekend’s provincial deciders, even if no one will depart from All-Ireland action, emphasise the dynamic. Limerick and Tipperary face off in the Munster Final, two weeks after round-robin fourth round. This game trailed a sourness, Tipperary winners by four points, but Limerick not up to the mark expected.
Were the All-Ireland champions fully off the bridle? Many people were doubtful, seeing Declan Hannon, Gearóid Hegarty and Cian Lynch on the bench. That their loss eliminated Clare, even after Banner victory over Cork, drew acidic comment.
Last summer, Limerick beat Tipperary by six points, 1-23 to 2-14. These two groups enjoy a fierce intimacy. That Limerick are All-Ireland champions is ever so personal in the homesteads of Cappawhite and Newport. Tipperary believe they possess the better operators, that Premier colours should be flying top of the world.
As of now, they are going great guns. Before that recent encounter with Limerick, when 1-22 was scored, Tipp had been averaging 33 points a game. There are times when I think this team is saving hurling, is emphasising how much faster the ball can travel than even the most athletic player. Integral to Tipp’s calibre?
Conversion of goal opportunities. Their forwards’ vision oils execution and selflessness pulls the trigger. The ball goes to the man in the best position and the net shakes. Compare Limerick in this regard. 2019’s round-robin tie, 18th minute: Séamus Flanagan wins a mighty possession to left of goal, emphasising James Barry’s stopgap nature at full-back. He tears forward, with Aaron Gillane hovering to his right. A deft Flanagan pass means a Gillane goal.
But the man in possession gets blocked down and the chance evaporates in a puff of selfishness. Tipperary convert such opportunities 90% of the time. Overcoming them this summer will be immensely difficult (although serious sunshine could clog their legs). No chance, unless you convert all goal chances. Tipp’s full-back-line, even with Cathal Barrett present, is their weakest sector. With Barrett absent through injury…
This contest’s macro question is plain: which set of half-forwards can best squeeze short deliveries from half-backs to colleagues? Said constriction would upset both teams’ favoured approach. While Limerick are probably more dependent on crowding middle third, Tipperary draw from the same well.
Any opponent must staunch Pádraic Maher’s influence. His free centre-back role is crucial to Noel McGrath’s current standing as a sultan of ping. Does Hegarty go centre-forward? And play tight to the D? The midfield clash of McGrath with Cian Lynch, the game’s other sultan, will be a humdinger. To win, Limerick will likely need one more goal than these opponents. Could happen but a percentage bet eschews this verdict.
There were no doubts about these teams and the bridle. Pressure points? One is Simon Donohoe as Wexford’s least accomplished defender. Last day out, Adrian Mullen top-scored from play with 1-3 (which should have been 1-5). Donohoe was Mullen’s marker. Conor Firman and Shane Reck bide as a potential replacement. They are no better. Damien Reck, one of the country’s best defenders, is an injury doubt.
Kilkenny could gambit canny adjustments. Walter Walsh could go to corner-forward, his best inter-county position. Billy Ryan (or another figure) is there for half-forward, alongside Richie Leahy and TJ Reid.
Spool this thought. Walsh’s half-forward play, all those barrelling solo runs, becomes too predictable at top level. Besides, his grip-changing style coarsens decision-making in possession. Gaining possession in the full-forward line necessitates far fewer decisions.
There is a sharp logic. Forget Damien Reck’s injury status for a moment. Do Wexford want him on Walsh, allowing marked discrepancy in height and physique?
Now remember Reck’s injury status. Could Firman or Shane Reck adequately mark Walsh? Or Mullen? A percentage bet says not. Why not set Wexford cruxes? A certain passivity has been a Noreside weakness in recent seasons. Kilkenny need to be less passive.
There are further angles. Likely enough, Matthew O’Hanlon again picks up TJ Reid. The Wexford man, right-half-back a fortnight ago, held Reid scoreless from play. For the Leinster Final, Reid could mix up matters by occasionally drifting into top of the left. Mullen would have no problem filling in at left-half-forward.
Bringing O’Hanlon to corner-back, off and on, would lever him out of his comfort zone. Bundling bodies around a wing-forward is easier than getting them around a corner-forward.
Midfield must be a Kilkenny concern. Diarmuid O’Keeffe took Cillian Buckley for four points in the first half. James Maher should enter from the start. The major question at half-back concerns someone sufficiently doughty as Lee Chin’s marker. Will Paddy Deegan be fit? But can Wexford afford Pádraig Walsh the same libero latitude?
We are told Davy Fitzgerald has reinvented hurling tactics, getting backs forward even in light of deploying a sweeper, getting too many players forward at times. This craic is hooey. Last day out, it was four Kilkenny defenders who pointed from play. That groove cut Kilkenny’s way.
They should find, overall, more room for improvement. Major bugbear? Needless wides retarding momentum. Amending this glitch would make them contenders. If Kilkenny play smart, they should find the wherewithal to win by three or four points. If nothing else, their bench is a more potent resource.