Sometimes hurling dynamics get interestingly skewed.
Sunday’s Munster semi-final is a case in point. For a team to whom few give much chance against Tipperary, Limerick carry a fair bit of expectation. Let me count the ways.
First and foremost, people crave a showing that might galvanise this season. Limerick, among the counties considered a contender, are the last to appear. Can they offset, by dint of a strong performance, the championship’s underwhelming nature thus far?
Mark this context. If Tipperary come through on Sunday, 2016 will see exactly the same provincial finalists and qualifier candidates as 2015. This scenario is alternatively spelled ‘stasis’.
Second, Limerick were deemed a contender after they won 2013’s Munster Championship and pushed Kilkenny to the edge of defeat in 2014’s elemental All-Ireland semi-final. The potential is there (augmented by 2015’s U21 All-Ireland). But when is this potential going to show, if not now?
Third, observers want to see how Limerick set up. Their ragged attempt to utilise an extra defender against Waterford in last April’s NHL semi-final remains fresh in mind. Limerick’s self-image is more Jack Charlton than Johnny Giles, more John Daly than Tiger Woods.
This tradition emphasises fronting up and raw passion over the variations of finesse. Talk of sweepers (abundant these last months) sits ill with said inheritance.
How will Limerick stymie the threat of Séamus Callanan, Tipperary’s brilliant full-forward? Near decisively, he slotted two goals in the first half of last June’s Munster semi-final.
Although Limerick rallied and cut the lead to a point in the 48th minute, the margin had swelled to 16 points at full-time.
The most significant meeting for any two teams is their last one. Limerick’s fears, on foot of 2015’s trimming, naturally centre on Callanan. The fourth point of interest is therefore a burr for partisans and neutrals alike.
To wit: can Callanan be stifled without resorting to a seventh defender?
Success on this front would embolden observers who dislike hurling’s defensive turn. Michael Duignan weighed in this week with another complaint about such hurling’s status as a spectacle, via its emphasis on sweepers and packed middle thirds.
The macro mistake Limerick certainly need to avoid is Cork’s macro mistake in the Munster quarter-final. Cork ended up so spooked by Callanan’s potential they bent themselves entirely out of shape. They had William Egan sweeping so deep he might as well have been Captain Nemo.
Courtesy in no small part of that mistake, Cork sank.
Rumours abounded before the Galway-Tipperary All Ireland semi-final last August that the Westerners were contemplating deploying a sweeper.
I wrote in this column: “Tipperary’s current approach is based on pinging balls from the back to men in the middle third. Why ease such matters for Tipp by making a spare man the sultan of ping?”
The same moral applies. Noel McGrath, John O’Dwyer and friends drop off out the field, releasing space in which Callanan can work his magic. Therefore you need to staunch minatory deliveries at source. To have any chance, Limerick must pick a half forward trio who will dog opposing half-backs.
Even though Cork were dreadful on the day, Tipperary produced real quality. I was struck by Pádraic Maher’s appearance. Interviewed afterwards, he was in such good shape his face was like glass. This aspect bodes strong for Tipp’s chances on Sunday and beyond.
Nothing concrete, on 2016 form-lines, makes a serious case for Limerick. Ditto for 2015. An upset will require a reversion to the gaiscí of 2013 and 2014, a resurgence not anticipatable as of now.
Last weekend did witness a stirring showing, if not one for which most had wished. Brian Cody, embarked upon an 18th season at the helm, has presided over freakishly excellent results. Few of those results match for freakishness Kilkenny’s 12-point win over Dublin in their Leinster semi-final.
The winners might have been bare bones as regards personnel but they were plumped tight in spirit. What can you say?
This stuff is hurling’s equivalent of hauntings and temperature drops, phenomena scarcely explainable in rational terms. That 1-8 on the spin after halftime, which killed off Dublin and unnerved everyone else, was this summer’s biggest statement as yet.
Kilkenny might lose the Leinster Final and exit in an All-Ireland quarter-final. But their performance last weekend set in train implications not just for the rest of the summer but for the medium term future. All in all, Kilkenny will hardly be going away as contenders.
This weekend, Galway meet Offaly in their Leinster semi-final. The latter’s season has recovered in some measure from what seemed a catastrophic defeat against Westmeath in the Leinster round robin.
Equally, Offaly’s U21s will face Dublin in the Leinster Final if they beat Carlow next week. There is encouragement in the prospect of the county making this decider for the first time since 2008.
Rather like Limerick’s take on Tipperary, Offaly never fear Galway. There is no expectation on the Faithful contingent and they are guaranteed another outing. Although you could not make a case for Offaly overturning Galway, they may perform quite a bit better than anticipated.
Galway are said to have left cranking up training until late April, due to drawing what was perceived as the softer route in Leinster. Their performance against Westmeath last time out did not trouble the gears. Galway will want to make considerably more noise this time round.
Meanwhile Dublin, severely chastened, head for the qualifiers. Cónal Keaney’s acerbic tweet following defeat to Kilkenny firmed up those rumours about an unsettled camp. The pity is that Dublin have some fine young players, as their win over Westmeath’s U21s on Wednesday evening made clear.
Dublin need Joey Boland and Peter Kelly fit. They probably need Gary Maguire between the posts. More broadly, they need Danny Sutcliffe back in the fold.
Those wishes are a lot of July blooms to covet in unplanted June.
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