At this stage, because I’ve been giving out so much about the league over the last few months, some lads are nearly comparing me to a bear who is just rustling from his winter hibernation. I won’t deny that claim - about my criticism of the league, not the bear analogy - but if lads want to make that comparison, I’ll admit that the bear is finally perking up. The first drops of honey are finally appearing in the jar.
After so many underwhelming hurling weekends over the last seven weeks, I think we can say that the league has reached the point we’ve been waiting for, with two mouth-watering semi-finals finally giving us something to get excited about. Hallelujah.
Maybe the fact that the championship is only four weeks away now, and that the clocks are going forward this weekend, has got us all a little excited. Hurling people always perked up once the long evenings arrived and, while nobody can be guaranteed what they’re going to get in the Gaelic Grounds or in Nolan Park over the weekend, we can all be fairly sure that it will be more full-blooded – and entertaining – than what we’ve seen to date.
I think what has frustrated people more than anything is how such a lack of quality and edge to so many games coincided with the GAA’s decision to hike up their prices for league matches. It’s one thing for people to hand over their hard earned cash but it’s a completely different mindset when those same people have no clue what value they’re going to get for it. And I would say that most supporters have felt short-changed.
Apart from the obvious of the league finishing so closely to the start of the round robin, the main reason that the league hasn’t worked is because there is no threat or relegation for the big teams.
The biggest game of the weekend is taking place in Thurles on Saturday afternoon between Laois and Westmeath to decide who will be playing in Division 1 and Division 2 next year.
How big is it? Put it this way, if Laois win the Joe McDonagh Cup this year, what kind of preparation will they have for next year’s Leinster championship if they’re operating out of Division 2? If Westmeath retain their Liam MacCarthy status this year and are back in Leinster again next year, they’ll find it hard to stay in the provincial championship for another season if they’re operating out of Division 2 next year.
That’s the other side of the league which nobody really pays any attention to. Is that fair to Laois and Westmeath? No, it isn’t but nobody outside those counties seems to care. Everyone will just turn their focus to the semi-finals now because they’re just hungry for meaningful contests after two months of shadowboxing.
I never liked league semi-finals, either as a player and manager, but having the four best teams (currently) in the last four here has at least justified the approach all those sides have taken this spring.
Ironically though, the two teams which topped their groups – Cork and Tipperary – find themselves having to go away. I understand that’s to do with home-and-away arrangements around the last times the sides met in league semi-finals. But that situation is still a neat metaphor for the current state of the league, and how all over the place it is. Surely if you top the table, you’re entitled to an advantage.
Limerick certainly don’t need any extra advantage, especially when they look even stronger again at this stage of the league than where they were last year. They look like they could win this league going at 80-85%. That’s the beauty of what Limerick have, and what they have created.
Their flexibility with so many players gives John Kiely the licence to really attack this fixture. There is every chance that John Kiely will go as hard as Limerick can to try and blow any notions Tipp might have around beating them in the summer completely out of their heads.
What does Liam Cahill do now, especially after having won the league title last year, which was deemed – rightly or wrongly – damaging to Waterford’s championship aspirations?
I’m not sure if I buy that. Stuff happens during a championship. You often gamble. Sometimes it pays off. Other times it doesn’t. The way it ended in Waterford has made it easy for some people to dismiss what Liam and Mikey Bevans achieved down there, which shouldn’t be forgotten – a league title and an All-Ireland final appearance.
In any case, whatever Liam did in Waterford has nothing to do with his current journey in Tipperary. That’s the type of guy he is anyway. He lives in the moment. He doesn’t know any other way but to go flat out. That was evident last week when Tipp were already through to the league semi-finals before they arrived in Corrigan Park but they still handed out a lesson to Antrim.
There was a ruthlessness about Tipp last week which has been reflected in their goalscoring trends this spring, just like it was with Waterford in last year’s league when they were mowing teams down for fun. Tipp have already scored 15 goals, which could have actually been more.
There has been a clear attitude change with Tipp this year around going for goals, which has stemmed from Cahill and Bevans. No disrespect to Antrim, Dublin and Laois but Limerick in the Gaelic Grounds is the acid test of that approach.
Cahill and his players will embrace that challenge. I don’t see how Liam can hold back but he won’t want to either considering the grief he experienced at their hands when he was Waterford manager, never mind the pain these Tipp players have suffered from Limerick in the last few years.
You have a fair idea of how much Cahill wants to invest and expend in a slugging match with Limerick through his team selection.
I'd have Jason Forde up there alongside TJ Reid, Donal Burke and Aaron Gillane as one of the best freetakers in the game. Gearóid O’Connor has done well on the frees in the last few games with Forde on the bench but I'd imagine Cahill now goes back to Forde because he has more experience.
But O'Connor starts too. When you’re trying to make hard calls and assess if new players are up to championship standard or not, this is the ideal game to find out. The risk then is deciding how badly you want to win the game by having enough experience on the pitch to match up to the Green Machine.
Bonner starts as well. If Cahill is going all out, ‘Bonner’ would be the man to lead that expedition. And he may need the likes of John McGrath from the bench if things start to go wrong and Tipp are looking at a situation where, suddenly, all of their spring momentum is in smithereens.
I expect a really intriguing contest especially when Limerick are probably not as fit as Tipp are at the moment. Still, Limerick have it in the minds as much as the legs. And once the hunger is still in the belly – which it clearly is - I expect Limerick to win this by a handful of points.
In Nowlan Park on Sunday, Derek Lyng and Kilkenny will be going all out to win and reach a league final and eye another potential crack at Limerick – or Tipp - which always gets their juices flowing down there. They’ll also want to put manners on Cork who have beaten Kilkenny in the last two semi-final meetings between the pair – the 2021 All-Ireland semi-final and the 2022 league semi-final.
Pat Ryan has tried a lot of players to date but he’ll be anxious to start settling on his championship starting 15 at this stage of the competition, especially when so many players have missed so much of the campaign through injury.
Kilkenny have had their issues too with missing players, especially in their defence. Huw Lawlor and Mikey Butler have missed a lot of action, while Derek is still experimenting with Padraig Walsh in a new Barry Nash-type role, where Padraig is trying to get forward when the opportunity presents itself.
This will be an another interesting game. I like a lot of what I have seen from Cork so far. Some of their new players have been impressive but the most pleasing part for Pat is how Cork have found ways to win tight games. That was particularly evident against Limerick and Wexford while Cork just refused to let the result get away from them last week when scrambling a draw against Clare.
I expect this to be a tighter game than in the Gaelic Grounds. Cork will be cock a hoop but I think Kilkenny will be demanding an improved performance from what they produced in front of the locals last week against Waterford. I fancy Kilkenny to shade it.