PM O'SULLIVAN: The ball has hopped up for Limerick, they must strike

Limerick's Kyle Hayes in action in the All-Ireland preliminary quarter-final against Carlow

While soccer, courtesy of Croatia, is no longer winging home, hurling truths are dropping towards a roost.

The most beautiful game moves to its last six pilgrims. Tomorrow afternoon, Clare and Wexford go first in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. There is a sense in which this contest lay in the stars.

I am thinking of its almost Biblical cast, intimate against intimate, Davy Fitzgerald in one corner as Wexford manager, Pat Fitzgerald as Clare County Board secretary in the other one. This All-Ireland quarter-final might be the most intense occasion since Mick O’Dwyer’s Kildare took on Páidí Ó Sé’s Kerry in 1998.

Both teams are coming up a slope, recovering from a disappointment. Clare slumped to a Munster final loss against Cork, regret intensified by failing at the same stage to the same opposition two years in a row. Old weaknesses (poor decision making, attendant wides) still haunt their play.

I mentioned before Clare’s A-team hurling, frenetic shooting but scarce few dents on the scoreboard. The trait remains. Hurlers opt for low-percentage shots from strange mixtures of ego and self-doubt. Management need to address this knot in their psyche.

Up and down in the Leinster round-robin, Wexford disappointed in their last two serious outings, flopping to Galway and losing to Kilkenny. Had this team really progressed, for all the media hype?

There were glimmers. The trip to Nowlan Park saw a seven-point half-time lead, which swelled to nine points early in the second half. Then Kilkenny, never as bad since the mid-1990s, shook themselves and outscored the leaders by 0-15 to 0-5 in the subsequent half-hour.

This result led to Westmeath, who were beaten last weekend in a facile contest. Betwixt ups and between downs, the bookmakers do not fancy Wexford.

Most observers agree on Clare’s major weakness, their half-back line. This sector’s sloppiness proved a major factor in the Munster final, posing a macro question for Wexford’s management. Is going with five forwards, so as to muster seven defenders, best means of exposing said weakness?

Not that the question is single edged. A Wexford sweeper presents this opposition with dilemmas. Who acts as Clare’s spare defender? While Jamie Shanahan is best-suited candidate, this choice would entail one of the full-back line operating at wing-back, which pretty much rules out Jack Browne.

Clare’s Jack Browne
Clare’s Jack Browne

There is further nuance. Clare are likely to want Séadna Morey, on grounds of pace, as David Dunne’s marker. If so, Patrick O’Connor might have to go wing back. These possibilities could leave Browne inside marking Conor McDonald or Rory O’Connor, which looks undesirable. David McInerney will likely be reserved for this task, which would leave Browne sweeper or wing back, a set-up far from ideal.

Ironically enough, a Wexford sweeper indirectly poses traps for this Clare defence. Such queries would not always arise but tomorrow is an exception. Marking jobs, especially with Conor Cleary and McInerney struggling for form in central defence, become unusually important.

There was mucho hoohah when Wexford beat a poor Kilkenny side in last June’s Leinster semi-final. Limp losers to Galway in 2017’s Leinster final, the county subsequently fell tamely to Waterford in the All-Ireland quarters. Two summers in a row, Wexford ran out of gas.

This arc posed a question about whether a Davy Fitzgerald-managed side could hurl deep into summer. His post-2013 Clare panels never got back to Croke Park. One view indicts unsustainable levels of training as a barrier to summer success.

This contest is hard to call. Although I fancy Wexford to come through, their manner of play, its lack of logic in part, dilutes confidence.

Kilkenny and Limerick go at it in Thurles on Sunday afternoon in a fascinating encounter, a team supposedly in transition and a team in the ascent. Before defeat to Clare in Munster’s last round, Shannonside expectations had soared. Former great Ciarán Carey remarked in May: “It’s going to take a serious team to beat Limerick this year.”

How serious are Kilkenny? Face value, they achieved significant progress in 2018, winning the NHL final and reaching the last six. During 2017, their league campaign spluttered and the championship selection, poor for the most part, bowed out in last eight.

Where are Kilkenny, in so many senses? The plus side of the scales contains that progress along with a drawn Leinster final. The minus side contains last Sunday’s loss to Galway (which included atrocious hurling in the first half and a 12-point deficit) allied to emphatic defeat in Salthill and erratic performances against Dublin and Wexford. All in all, the minus side is heavier.

John Donnelly of Kilkenny in action in the Leinster final replay against Galway in Thurles
John Donnelly of Kilkenny in action in the Leinster final replay against Galway in Thurles

Where are Kilkenny headed? Last Sunday, their puckout strategy in the first half was incoherent. As the puckouts went long, their midfielders stayed deep. Galway midfielders David Burke and Johnny Coen ran the show. I sense the camp is divided on puckouts, which harks back to Brian Cody gesturing fiercely to Eoin Murphy to puck long against Wexford.

Again, seven or so minutes left, management swapped left half back Robert Lennon and full back Pádraig Walsh. That alteration might be a straw in a carrying breeze.

Does Lennon now stay full back? Is Joey Holden entirely out of this frame? Is there even a case for Paddy Deegan as a stopgap full-back, in that he spent plenty of time in 2018 on square’s edge?

The point is not that Walsh has been poor at full-back. Generally sound in the position, Walsh produced a terrific performance in the drawn Leinster final.

The point is overall balance. Consider the difference between ‘bold’ and ‘rash’. Managers must strive for boldness while avoiding rashness. The task is thankless because most people make the attribution solely on whether a match is won or lost.

Unless I am badly mistaken, Pádraig Walsh will not be Kilkenny’s full-back in 2019.

Would it be bold or rash to accelerate this process?

Could you go with Walsh at midfield, with Conor Fogarty and Cillian Buckley the wing backs and Holden at centre back? Buckley looks frazzled at centre back. Lennon stays full back unless that chance is taken on Paddy Deegan (with maybe Conor Delaney at corner back). Risky moves at this stage. But will Kilkenny evolve into All-Ireland contenders via their current defence? Do you defer this process until spring? Or do you begin amid Championship knowledge, however harsh the information might end up?

Meanwhile, Limerick’s position is stark. Since they can win this game, they must win it.

There is this Kilkenny team in itself, its faltering nature, and there is the specific context, Kilkenny out for a third week on the trot in a heatwave. Yes, Limerick have used three full-backs in 2018 and need some fortune in this area. But could the ball have hopped up any better?

This group is striving for a senior title by 2021 at the latest. If they cannot beat this Kilkenny vintage, you would wonder about their ability to beat whatever side when it counts. For them, the stakes are not just progress but psychological health.

If not now, when?

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