Sunday: Limerick v Galway, Croke Park 4pm (Live RTÉ, Sky Sports)
Don’t be silly. But certainly tomorrow will be grindcore hurling compared to tonight’s fare. Moments after the Munster final Liam Cahill spoke with a touch of wistfulness about Limerick’s advanced state of strength and conditioning compared to that of Waterford. The MacCarthy Cup favourites will hold no such advantage here.
Playing Galway is the nearest Limerick will get to looking in a mirror without looking in a mirror and this will be the nearest hurling comes to a re-enactment of the Battle of Kursk. The heavy armoured divisions will thunder around Croke Park and the clang of colliding steel will be heard in Navan. Good job Cian Lynch, who will surely come back in the next life as a Hoover, will be there to provide some nuance.
The new normal, with everyone defending for their lives at one end while attempting to fashion space down the other end. Limerick will go long to Aaron Gillane and at times only two green shirts will be seen in Galway’s half of the field. Conor Whelan is Galway’s natural outlet, with Brian Concannon floating off him. Diarmuid Byrnes and Joseph Cooney may essay occasional sallies up the flank to have a pot if they can escape the traffic.
The latter-day Joe Canning has adopted a role not dissimilar to the one Lynch fulfils for Limerick, pulling strings from deep without being lumped with the scoring burden. Yet an obvious tactical curveball in the circumstances would be to start Canning on the edge of the square, or perhaps at 13, and see how a makeshift full-back line cope.
Ostensibly there’s only one answer. The depth of Limerick’s playing resources has been among hurling’s leading articles of faith ever since their subs combined for a haul of 2-6 in the All Ireland semi-final two years ago. This season the subs contributed 0-2 against Clare; 1-3 to keep Tipp at arm’s length; and – significant in a four-point game – 0-2 versus Waterford.
Two caveats. Shane Dowling, who transferred the concept of the closer from baseball to hurling, has departed while Peter Casey is established as a starting forward. Also, it’s one thing for subs to help extend a lead but another for them to help overhaul a deficit. Limerick sourced 1-2 off the bench against Kilkenny last year but in a match, they were always chasing, and where they were forced to withdraw three forwards, it wasn’t enough.
Twice, Cathal Mannion has been an All-Star coming into the business end of the All-Ireland and twice he has played himself out of the 15. Last Saturday, he was the best Galway player on the field, but consistency has been an issue. If he drops out the field here to act as a third midfielder Hannon isn’t going to follow him. The Limerick captain had a relatively quiet if steady Munster campaign, more aware than his wing backs of the need to protect what remains a makeshift full-back line. He won’t drift too far in front of them but also has to be wary that Mannion is just the type of player to profit from extra space between Limerick’s half-back line and midfield.
Why couldn’t Horgan have been swapped with James Owens or is that Owens’ sending off of Richie Hogan in the 2019 final still lingers among appointment officials? James remains one of the top three referees in the country because he is comfortable with implementing the rulebook, using common sense and playing advantage. However, because of work commitments he missed the early part of the pre-Championship fitness work and he only has one game under his belt going into this semi-final. Maybe better to try one of the up-and-coming referees like Paud O’Dwyer. Interestingly, the two semi-final referees from last year aren’t even on the panel this season - Seán Cleere and Alan Kelly for different reasons. That just shows the system is not working.
A two-week turnaround for the Munster champions to the All-Ireland semi-final this year must feel like heaven compared to four and five-week breaks. Since Cork in 2005, only Tipperary in 2016 have been able to go all the way.
Coupled with Galway just having one week to right themselves following that grueller with Tipperary, the chips are stacked in Limerick’s favour. It’s not as if they aren’t battle-hardened either after taking the longest route to defending their provincial title.
Galway have the experience of two recent games in Croke Park and in both they were the better team for the most part. On those immaculate expanses, Conor Whelan will also be rubbing his hands at the possibility of running at Barry Nash, something of a square peg in a round hole at corner-back.
Limerick’s half-back line have been extremely mindful of the defenders behind them. By extension, Cian Lynch and William O’Donoghue as well as Gearóid Hegarty and Tom Morrissey will be dropping back to compensate but also to deny Galway’s long-range shooters.
Daithí Burke is an exception but there are still question marks about Galway’s corner backs. Peter Casey would be a different challenge for Burke although John Kiely may look to alternate him and Aaron Gillane, a superb primary ball winner, to unsettle the great full-back.
Size will be a major factor in the middle third where the idea of Hegarty and Diarmaid Byrnes colliding with Joe Cooney or Canning projects an image of stags rutting. Neither team will shirk from those hits but bearing in mind the recent Kilkenny and Tipperary outings can Galway afford to maintain that for the entirety of the game? Sure, start that way but shrewder hurling will be needed towards the end of each half.
Limerick’s composure in the final quarters thus far bodes well for them. This time around, they shouldn’t be hoping and praying as Canning stands over a ball in additional time.
Galway and Limerick haven’t met in an All-Ireland semi-final since 1981 when Galway won a replay by five points.
Limerick 0-36 Clare 1-23 (Munster quarter-final)
Limerick 3-23 Tipperary 2-17 (Munster semi-final)
Limerick 0-25 Waterford 0-21 (Munster SHC final)
Aaron Gillane 2-28 (0-22 frees, 1-0 pen, 0-1 ‘65’), Ger Hegarty 0-9, Diarmuid Byrnes 0-8 (0-3 frees, 0-1 ‘65’), Graeme Mulcahy 0-8.
Galway 1-27 Wexford 0-17 (Leinster semi-final)
Kilkenny 2-20 Galway 0-24 (Leinster SHC final)
Galway 3-23 Tipperary 2-24 (All-Ireland quarter-final)
Joe Canning 0-37 (0-28 frees, 0-3 s/l, 0-2 ‘65s’), Brian Concannon 2-5, Cathal Mannion 1-6.
2018 Limerick 3-16 Galway 2-18 (All-Ireland SHC Final)
2005 Galway 1-18 Limerick 2-14 (All-Ireland Qualifiers)
1981 Galway 4-16 Limerick 2-17 (All-Ireland semi-final) replay
1980 Galway 1-8 Limerick 0-11 (All-Ireland semi-final) draw
1963 Limerick 3-9 Galway 2-7 (Munster quarter-final)
A massive match that would have drawn 70k-plus. Limerick blew Clare and Tipp out of the water, working through the lines. Though there were chinks when Waterford disrupted them with energy and forced uncommon errors. The half-forward line didn’t make the usual impact in the Munster final, with the exception of Gearóid Hegarty. Maybe Kyle Hayes will be back there.
Galway want revenge for 2018 and are buoyed by the scalp of Tipp. The form of the Mannions is important. Shane O'Neill and John Fitzgerald have huge inside info, but this might come down to who has more firepower to come in. Seamus Flanagan, David Dempsey, Darragh O’Donovan and Richie English give Limerick great options. Favoritism could be their Achilles heel, but if Cian Lynch is back in his Hurler of the Year position, I give them a hesitant vote as the fresher team.