The hurling summer keeps getting hotter and I expect the mercury to be on the rise in Semple Stadium for the two All-Ireland qualifiers this evening.
Kilkenny and Waterford is a game I’m relishing. Brian Cody’s men are on a high after their win against Tipperary but you’d have to wonder how much has that victory taken out of them. How much especially has it taken out of their four 30-somethings in the defence, who now have to lift themselves for the second time in a week, in this heat, but this time not in the cosy confines of their home ground – in Semple Stadium.
If they can do that though, if Paul Murphy – one of the two youngsters in that defence, along with Kieran Joyce – can again set the example and drive Kilkenny forward, then Waterford are in for a tough time.
Another crucial player for Kilkenny (and has been for some time) is Eoin Larkin. It was a great move by Brian Cody to shift Eoin to midfield for last week’s game, give him a chance to find his feet again, and Eoin thrived out there. Eoin is partnered now by Michael Rice, with Lester Ryan, the revelation of the league, dropped to the bench. It shows that there is little room for sentiment in Kilkenny.
A major worry for the Cats, and has been for a while, is their attack. They’re struggling to get goals which is unusual for Kilkenny. They’re scoring the points but green flags – and at critical times – were always a hallmark of the Cats, even before the Cody era.
To Waterford, and I look to one player in particular, Brick Walsh. Any team that has a player of this calibre always has a chance. He’s the foundation of this side; break him and you break the team (as Tipperary learned) but when he plays well, so do Waterford. Backing up Brick, are captain Kevin Moran and Seamus Prendergast, another two great warriors. But some of the younger brigade are also stepping up to the mark with Maurice Shanahan enjoying a rich vein of form while Jamie Nagle and Jake Dillon have caught the eye. All those, and everyone else, need to come up with a big performance this evening.
The crucial thing for Waterford is movement. They must be non-stop against Kilkenny. Semple Stadium and its wide open spaces has become a home away from home for many of these players, it is a place also that’s been very good to them.
This is a very dangerous game for Kilkenny and I can’t stress that enough. Only a week to recover, this heat, the age factor, the miles on the clock – they need to get everything right again this week because if they don’t, Waterford will strike. I don’t think that’s going to happen though. Kilkenny have so much experience, they’re now in do-or-die games and no better team to ‘do’ in that situation. I’m going for Kilkenny here.
The opening game between Wexford and Clare is an interesting fixture also. Wexford come into the game on the back of two tough Leinster championship tussles with eventual champions Dublin while on Wednesday their U21 side captured the provincial title in thrilling fashion against Kilkenny. Put together, all that will surely have boosted their spirits as they head for Thurles.
However it’s a long, long time since Wexford beat Clare in championship, especially in the qualifiers, and I’m sure Davy Fitzgerald see this as a great opportunity to get into an All-Ireland quarter-final.
They had a handy draw in the last round when they won well against Laois at home in Ennis. I think they are fortunate again here in the team they’re meeting – better Wexford than Kilkenny! Buoyed or not by what has happened in the last week, I don’t expect Wexford to improve their record against Clare, in fact I think the Banner might win with a good bit to spare. Wexford are without Lee Chin, captain of the U-21 team on Wednesday and an outstanding performance; another of their heroes on the night, Jack Guiney, now has only a couple of days to recover from those exertions so he might pay a price.
Overall, backboned as they are by not one but two All-Ireland-winning U-21 teams, Clare have the firepower to advance.
What another weekend of hurling in prospect though – it might even surpass last weekend!