All Ireland semi final weekend endures as one of hurling’s most enjoyable occasions.
Often enough, these games produce a better standard than the following decider. I have high hopes of this evening’s meeting of Clare and Kilkenny. Ditto for tomorrow’s meeting of Galway and Limerick. We should see two crackers.
The mood music in Kilkenny altered significantly over the last four weeks. Matters became far more upbeat on the back of murmurs about training. Only fair to acknowledge this turn, since I have been frank in the past about downbeat dynamics. I am much more optimistic about a Kilkenny win than I expected to be.
The Senior panel are said to have trained out of their proverbial skin for the last few weeks. A trip away to Johnstown House proved highly productive. All the talk says Richie Hogan has been especially prominent (and he is back in the 26).
Winning another Leinster title meant not just the Bob O’Keeffe Cup for Richie Reid but a chunk of extra training time. Once you have a half dozen or so flat out quality sessions in a row, players can put up their hand in sustained fashion. This factor allows types of reset not available to teams facing an All Ireland quarter final. Not only whiskey maturation benefits from time.
The Kilkenny players are a bit taken aback, in a good sense, by the rise in training’s standard. This upsurge blew up in a sense out of almost nowhere. After all, Kilkenny were more competent than splendid in Leinster Final victory over Galway.
Yet two players, separately, were chatting to someone I know early in the week and mentioned four ten minute segments of hurling played last Saturday evening in Nowlan Park. They both shook their head and said nothing approaching such intensity and sweep had been seen before. Brian Cody apparently remarked after one session: “This is how we were training when we were winning All Irelands.”
Here, then, is that upbeat scenario. If training ground form spools out of Nowlan Park into Croke Park, Kilkenny will be right there. They might be running up the semi-final hill with a massive performance. Dynamics have shifted.
Which is in no way to underestimate the magnitude of the coming challenge. Clare are an excellent team, well marshalled by Brian Lohan and colleagues, a formidable splice of power and pace. Portumna’s Seán Treacy is apparently an excellent coach.
A friend recently met one of the current Clare hurlers at the golf in Mount Juliet. He asked him: “How come ye are doing so well this year?” Reply: “Lohan has us absolutely together, playing for each other.”
These two teams’ formlines? Notably different. Bar their flat showing in the first half against Wexford, Clare have consistently produced an impressive performance level. There was a certain inevitability about flatness next day out after so tumultuous a Munster Final. Yet Clare were good value in the end for their four point win over Wexford. I greatly admire their current team.
Until now, Kilkenny have been much more unpredictable. A dismal round robin showing at home to Wexford morphed into that Leinster Final competence, when Kilkenny changed up their approach, hurling with decent variety, neatness and precision. But the reality remains that defeat this evening would mean Kilkenny losing three out of their five big championship games in 2022. Context so blunt should focus minds.
Match specifics? Print and podcasts hummed with talk of plans for manmarking Tony Kelly. I find most of this commentary frustrating and glib. The reality is that you need three plans for taking care of Kelly, best as any hurler so brilliant can be staunched.
If at midfield, he can obviously be tightly marked by a direct opponent. Simple enough. If he goes into the full forward line or to wing forward, he can be assigned a limpet marker who moves everywhere with him. Still simple enough.
The crux tightens if Kelly fetches up as a nominal centre forward. Call this conundrum, mindful of 2021’s Senior Final, ‘the Coleman-Lynch equation’. Cork got themselves in a lethal tangle, uncertain about whether Mark Coleman should hold his ground at centre back or track Cian Lynch.
Tony Kelly is not just a similar figure but a similar talent. Richie Reid, set the crux of this equation, needs to stick at centre back. Meanwhile a colleague ― Conor Browne, quite possibly ― twists around the field with Kelly.
For this situation, the budget includes an unmarked sitting centre back on each side. John Conlon sits and Richie Reid sits. Meanwhile a Kilkenny half forward ― Pádraig Walsh, quite possibly ― steps out into midfield as Browne’s replacement. You try to keep the ball up the wings, away from the sitting centre back (which is a far more accurate phrase rather than the recently hatched ‘plus one’).
This set up might advantage Kilkenny, in that Reid counts not as a natural pivot in the central channel-dominating sense. He is generally good on the ball but tends towards backing off rather than confronting an opponent. Item: Oisín Foley’s goal for Wexford saw the opposition defence split apart through the middle.
Will Clare’s management not wish to exploit this weakness, setting men on the burst down that corridor? Do they want to leave Reid effectively unmarked? One of the leading questions, this facet.
More specifics? Clare’s shape is more settled than Kilkenny’s shape. The latter have done mucho chopping and changing in their front eight, with midfield a particular area of uncertainty. Cian Kenny and Conor Browne, at face value, become another new partnership.
Kilkenny’s management know the Clare half back line constitutes a serious asset. Diarmuid Ryan, John Conlon and David McInerney form a castle. Taking them on probably involves a half forward trio of Adrian Mullen, Billy Ryan and Pádraig Walsh (unless wanted elsewhere). TJ Reid plays inside, drifting around. Martin Keoghan is all but established at full forward. Eoin Cody swings his menace to the corner.
Ryan is one of those hurlers who prefers backhand side, his left one. Most hurlers of this type are best deployed on the right side of attack, same as Aaron Gillane gets placed with Limerick. But I suspect Ryan, pacey out, would be better on the left at 12, stepping outside his man. He looks a hurler not that comfortable cutting inside into traffic, with opponents in his lateral eyeline. This situation a given over on the right. Although Ryan’s form is erratic, he does offer height, pace and physique ― invaluable qualities against those Clare half backs.
The Banner men possess plenty, quality wise, for progress. No question. And few in the opposing county would begrudge them progress after a sterling encounter. Brian Lohan and Ken McGrath are probably the two most popular outside hurlers.
Same time, I reckon Kilkenny will score at least as many points as Clare (who remain uncertain on the freetaking front). Score one more goal and Kilkenny likely progress on a scoreline akin to 2-24 to 1-24. Perhaps a TJ Reid penalty cleaves the difference.
Bookmakers make Limerick an overwhelming favourite for tomorrow’s semi final, with the champions rated 1/4 sure shots. This price is perfectly understandable. Limerick, short Peter Casey and Cian Lynch, still found a means of seeing off Clare in a wonderful Munster Final. While they might not yet have found, as of 2022, quite their best form, their aptitude with an answer is no less sharp. Now Casey and Lynch are restored to their match day panel.
What scenario delivers a Galway win against the head? You would likely need a profligate Limerick day on wides and one of their number sent off in the first half. The other straw? This sort of game, where Galway are not at all expected to triumph, is the sort of one in which they tend to motor well. Expectations are to Galway hurling what mirrors are to ghosts. Substance vanishes, as we saw four weeks ago in the Leinster Final.
I reckon the challengers will make a right cut at this opportunity. Why not? If nothing else, the county has done better than in 2021, when they suffered qualifier defeat to Waterford. True, 2020 did see them All Ireland semi final losers to Limerick. But in 2019 they failed to qualify from Leinster.
All seasons reduce to a capsule verdict. A Galway one for 2022 is already set: ‘Did better than last year. Did better, really, than the last three years.’ Henry Shefflin, as new manager, has more than held his own with substantially the same set of personnel. Fetters, inhibitions and shackles can go skyward.
Still, eight or nine times out of ten Limerick win this contest. They should find seven points to spare by teatime.