There are four teams determined to maintain their recent progress in two derby semi-finals of great potential. Unfortunately, if you needed proof the NHL is not so important to the GAA itself, it’s in the timing of those games - a direct clash with Munster v Leinster in Lansdowne Road.
These will be two games worth seeing. No-one will be holding anything back.
Limerick captain TJ Ryan said: “We’re focused on trying to win this game, same as we’ve been doing all year, one game at a time, get to the League final. We haven’t lost a game yet this year, in any competition. We want to maintain that record, but it will be well tested this week.
“Clare are one of the most underestimated teams around, went through their section of the League with away wins to Cork and Waterford, fair performances. But, from our point of view, isn’t that what we want? League semi-final, you don’t want it to be easy, you need these type of games to try to find out a bit more about our own team, so it’s perfect, ideal.”
Clare manager Anthony Daly is equally bullish: “Limerick really are the form team, and that’s without any need to talk them up. They haven’t lost a game yet, but I wouldn’t mind if we’re the first to beat them! It won’t be easy though. They’re well organised, enthusiastic, they have things going very well.
“They seem very tactically aware too, played with four forwards in the second half last week (the quarter-final win over Waterford), fed the ball up low to Shaughnessy; we’re going to have to try and counter that. But our own set-up isn’t going too bad, so it’s a good test for both of us.”
A fact very much remarked on about the current Clare team is their size, huge men in every line.
Daly said: “That’s not deliberate policy. We’re not setting out to play a physical game, it’s just that the best players in Clare at the moment are bigger men. But you have the likes of Jonathon Clancy there also. Fellas are picked on their ability, their work-rate, not their size.”
However, Limerick have a few big men of their own. Apart from the hurling - and both sides have top-class stickmen - this will be one hell of a physical clash.
The second semi-final will be mainly about redemption for Tipperary.
Two months ago they were beaten by Kilkenny 0-19 to 0-10. It could have been 6-19 to 0-10 but for the heroics of keeper Brendan Cummins.
The Tipp line-up has altered significantly since then, as has their form; according to Eoin Kelly - one of those who has returned from injury - having beaten Offaly in a good match last Sunday, Tipp will want to maintain that form.
“In 2001, Tipperary beat Clare in the League final and we played them again a month later in the championship. It didn’t do us any harm that year (Tipp did the League/championship double). We’d love to win the National League, we have a few young lads in, it would be nice to have a national title under your belt. Sunday will be fierce hard hurling.”
Agreed, says Kilkenny’s JJ Delaney, who also spoke of his experience as emergency full-back in the absence of Noel Hickey.
“There are no guarantees in sport, no guarantee that we’ll win next Sunday. Brian (Cody, manager) has given a lot of chances to a lot of the younger players, but they have plenty of experience in the U-21s the last few years. They’re getting their chance, and in fairness a lot of them are taking that chance. He’s mixed it up too, tried players in different positions, only right too.
“Any given day in the championship you could end up anywhere on the field, and the League is giving fellas experience in those positions that you wouldn’t normally find yourself in.
“If you drop the ball in the half-back line (JJ is an All-Star wing-back) it’s not the be-all and end-all, you can blame the lads behind you if a goal goes in. But if it happens at full-back, there’s only one lad to blame.”
Winners? It’s hard to go against Limerick, but I just feel Clare are that bit ahead in their development. It could be Clare and Kilkenny again, and an opportunity, perhaps, for Clare to avenge their trouncing in last year’s final.