Tomorrow first. Limerick first.
There is no way of talking about this All-Ireland semi-finals weekend — for publicitypurposes it should of course be
successive weekends featuring one semi-final each, and next year it had bloody well better be — without majoring on Limerick.
There is no way of talking about this glorious championship season without majoring on Limerick. Yet, in coming to praise them let’s, if not bury them, then at least get the caveat in early doors.
They don’t have Patrick Horgan.
They don’t have a Patrick Horgan. It may not cost them tomorrow. It’s likely to cost them before August is out. They have, instead, and good for them, a forward line where the bottom line constitutes more than the sum of the parts, a forward line where each individual puts in a shift and hits a seven or an eight out of 10 every day, the occasional ill-advised Sunday afternoon jaunt to Ennis apart.
It is this evenness, this coherence, that has made them the most reliable team out there — still only the one defeat in normal time all year — and 2017’s breath of fresh air.
Like Galway, and unlike every other team in the country, there’s an easy, unforced roundedness to their play. A congruence between their defending and their attacking, between their first halves and their second halves.
Compare and contrast this smoothness of output with Cork, who can oscillate wildly in what they do from one half to the next — think of the Tipperary match and the Munster final — and who are scintillating in the last 50 metres of the field, but do not set bayonets or ramparts in the first 50.
John Kiely’s charges are young, they’re ambitious (it’s now clear that losing the 2014 All-Ireland minor final was the best thing that could have happened to them in big-picture terms), they’re physically strapping, they can win their own ball, they don’t draw back from anything and it was their character that saw them through last Sunday week.
Brian Cody would adore them. Maybe he already does.
They are brilliantly coached. The length, line and angles of their deliveries from the back are enough to have the Tipperary forwards weeping in frustration. One ball against Kilkenny was lasered with such devilish precision that Graeme Mulcahy had the time, then the poise, to touch it back, retrace his steps, enlarge the angle and take his point at his leisure.
Mulcahy himself has been transformed from an almost stereotypical knacky but lightweight corner- forward of the type usually taken off before the end into a worker who beavers away when he’s out the field and contributes points when he gets forward. His day’s work is no longer measurable by his scoring tally.
Seamus Flanagan changes the centre of gravity of their attack, with the sight of the runners steaming in on the
far post an echo of a gambit Waterford used to good effect with Dan Shanahan in 2004. (How many hours on the training field has that particular routine taken up?)
They have big hitters off the tee all over the place, including on the bench and, when the occasion arises, Declan Hannon is able to step forward and unwind, knowing there’s cover behind him.
Amid the praise showered on them for their withering finishing kick a fortnight ago, the substance of their performance in the second quarter has been overlooked. After 15 minutes they had 0-3 on the board; at half-time they’d scored 0 15.
And if they were fortunate with Kilkenny’s seven wides in the 10 minutes immediately after the resumption, how much more fortunate were Kilkenny to have Eoin Murphy manning their goal?
The Limerick of 2014 lost a tempest-tossed classic against the stripey men. The Limerick of 2018 won a rain-sodden classic against the stripey men. There’s the difference. What more of a recommendation is required?
There’s no sub-section in the law of averages that ordains that Cork cannot lose three consecutive All-Ireland semi-finals as Munster champions, but they’ve surely worked out how to negotiate the gap from province to Croke Park by now.
That said, Limerick racked up 0-24 from play against Kilkenny and Cork are no more difficult to play through than Kilkenny. Besides, Tony Kelly’s run and assist for David Reidy’s goal in the Munster final — he picked up possession in his own half, turned and hared away — contained unsettling echoes of Jonathan Glynn’s goal at the start of the 2015 All-Ireland quarter-final.
And yet and yet, it is easy to overlook the fact that Cork have been a remarkably consistent team these past two summers, eight games unbeaten in Munster, their sole defeat occurring in a match that turned on a sending-off and found the management incapable of thinking on their feet and seeing to that most basic of basics: Ensuring all gaps at the back remained filled.
On the field and on the sideline they’re a year older, a year wiser and ought to be a year better.
They have Horgan. They have Darragh Fitzgibbon.
Seamus Harnedy is fit. If Conor Lehane shakes himself, they’ll have a sufficiency of craft in the right areas.
Failing that, has Thurles been fixed for the replay yet?
The bad news for Clare, and possibly for tomorrow’s winners, is that the drawing of the Leinster final could prove to be the winning of the All-Ireland final.
Galway moved from going through the motions to Defcon 1 for the replay with Kilkenny. If Micheál Donoghue is doing his job properly, they’ll remain there for the rest of the championship, the dirty petrol purged from the system and all complacency vanished.
It may be Galway’s aim to retain their title and not worry overmuch about the manner of same, but it ought to be their aim to do so in the style of a really good team. Starting three weeks ago in Thurles, continuing here and concluding next month.
Tomorrow pits a Humvee against a sports car. Jackie Tyrrell’s comparison with rugby players was a compliment, obviously; Clare cannot take Galway on at their own game and they’d be insane to try.
Simultaneously and contradictorily they have to get John Conlon — whose joust with Liam Ryan in the quarter-final was the raw-boned stuff of a bygone era, the sort of collision that would have sent the annalists of a century ago into ecstasies — into the game as frequently as possible, even if an evening in Daithi Burke’s company may amount to nothing more than a score draw. Does that make any kind of sense?
The Conlon issue apart, lateral thinking must be the order of the day for the Banner. As they cannot meet the champions on an open battlefield, or at any rate cannot do so without being at a marked disadvantage (“here we are now, horse us out of it”), asymmetric warfare will be the first and last item on the agenda.
In this regard they ought to have picked up a hint from the drawn Leinster final. Of Kilkenny’s last three points, one came from the touchline and another was sourced in the same place, Richie Hogan zapping the sliotar across the field for Enda Morrissey, pushing up on the far flank.
Clearly, there can be no repeat of the ruinous third quarter in the Munster final, when they managed two points from eight attempts and reverted to their old failing of overshooting the full-forward line, thereby turning Conlon into Robinson Crusoe. In their second year under the present regime, clear-eyed game management remains lacking.
They’ll also have to score goals. At least three. Clare will not outpoint Galway — nobody outpoints Galway — so a different method of making up the leeway will be needed. Going for the net when within range, as opposed to opting for a point, is an inherently hazardous strategy, but today it’s unavoidable.
Galway’s unfamiliarity with them over the past couple of seasons may work in Clare’s favour to a small extent. There’s also the question of how much the MacCarthy Cup holders will find off the bench in a crisis. Still and all, constructing a winning scenario for the challengers is a leap. Too much of a leap.