Treaty about to find out if rise has already peaked
Cats could give Limerick brutal reality check on defining weekend of action
Published 09/08/2014 | 02:30
August may be the start of autumn, but, on the GAA front, the temperature is rising. Second chances are no longer available. As September appears on the horizon, the long days and nights of early season training have faded.
Sacrifices are beginning to pay dividends. The only journey remaining for players is the one to Croke Park. For every hurling and football team left in the championship, the hope remains that journey will be made more than once.
This weekend, eight more teams will travel a sacred path – to a place where there are no hiding places; to a place where dreams are fulfilled and hopes are shattered.
After 70 minutes within the confines of Croke Park, few illusions remain.
Four things will be learned from events on the pitch at Croke Park this weekend:
1 IS THERE SUBSTANCE TO THE APPARENT PROGRESSION OF LIMERICK'S HURLERS?
Twelve months ago, the Limerick hurlers came to Croke Park as Munster champions.
This time around, they arrive in a semi-final minus silverware. In light of such facts, is it credible to suggest 2014 has brought progress for a team that flopped disastrously against Clare in last year's semi-final?
Or is silverware too harsh a barometer of progress?
Tomorrow's clash with Kilkenny will answer these questions, but, primarily because Limerick find themselves in another semi-final reliant on the same personnel as last year, I have my suspicions as to the depth of their improvement.
Perhaps they have learned from the experience of playing in Croke Park, of managing the expectation that accompanied them to a semi-final and perhaps they are a group driven by the memories of defeat.
For a team that came up woefully short on the All-Ireland stage on their last excursion outside Munster, considerable improvement is an absolute necessity tomorrow.
The consensus appeared to suggest coming to Croke Park after weeks of basking in the glory of a Munster win undermined last year's effort. Such theories aren't applicable now.
While they may be facing a moment of truth, they surely do so with confidence brimming.
They ruthlessly dismantled Wexford in the qualifiers in what must have served as an enjoyable run-out after the defeat by Cork in Munster.
With captain Donal O'Grady fit again, Limerick would seem to be in a perfect place. We know they'll bring huge effort, physicality and desire. Those facets of Limerick hurling never disappoint.
This time last year, their Achilles heel was their basic hurling skills. Twelve months on, how much has changed? We're about to find out.
2 ARE KILKENNY REVITALISED?
If an analysis of the hurling year to date was completed in isolation, Kilkenny would probably be odds on to claim Liam MacCarthy on September 7.
The Walsh Cup, the National League and Leinster's Bob O'Keeffe Cup have all made their way Noreside.
Now, having taken the direct route, they're two matches from adding the MacCarthy Cup to that haul of silverware, yet, in some places, they trade at 6/4.
It would seem the images captured last summer of tired Kilkenny legs still linger at the forefront of many minds. When Brian Cody's men came up short against Dublin and Cork in 2013, some proclaimed the end had come for a great team. They suggested Clare's approach to claiming All-Ireland victory had changed hurling.
Just how premature such sentiments were we can't be sure, but we can say Kilkenny are a different animal from last year's championship.
Despite continuous selection experiments, they won the National League and, aside from a shaky 10 minutes in O'Connor Park against Galway, they never looked troubled while winning Leinster.
Apparent deficiencies concerning mobility in the middle third have been addressed through the inclusion in the half-back line of Joey Holden and Cillian Buckley, as has Conor Fogarty's selection at midfield.
In comparison to the form shown last summer, defensive stalwarts Jackie Tyrrell, JJ Delaney and Brian Hogan are seemingly revitalised and Kilkenny's opposition won't find scores easy to come by.
But perhaps the factor exerting the greatest influence over Kilkenny's re-emergence is the lack of injuries within Cody's panel.
Last year, too many key men struggled all year with niggles and, indeed, the manager himself was absent for part of the early season campaign.
A year on, they don't have to contend with such problems. The return of Michael Fennelly and Richie Power provides Cody with a full hand to pick from and, whatever team he puts out against Limerick, his bench will look formidable.
Now within touching distance of another final, I sense they are a group driven by the shambles of last year's championship.
This year has seen them put the record straight in every competition thus far, a fact I suspect that won't have altered come tomorrow evening.
3 IS THERE DEPTH TO THE FOOTBALL CHAMPIONSHIP?
The apparent lack of competition among hurling counties has often been used as a claim designed to devalue the small-ball championship.
In a typical hurling year, it's accurate to suggest there may be four teams with a realistic chance of winning a hurling All-Ireland.
The game simply isn't played to a sufficient standard across enough counties for that number to be any greater.
Theoretically, Gaelic football is different, supposedly more competitive.
But quantity doesn't always mean quality, as I would suggest this year's championship has proved.
The standard has been moderate and it's difficult to recall a game that could be classed as memorable.
Last weekend, we saw Kerry and Mayo qualify for the semi-finals, while, today, it's expected Dublin and Donegal will do likewise.
And it would seem nothing much has changed as the gap between the contenders and the rest grows wider.
Credit to Cork for pushing Mayo so close, but Kerry hardly needed to come out of second gear to beat Galway last weekend.
Let's hope we see Monaghan and Armagh give their respective opponents an uncomfortable afternoon in Croke Park and restore some credence to the ideology that the big-ball championship is indeed distinguished by its competitiveness.
4 ARE DONEGAL EQUIPPED TO TACKLE DUBLIN?
I acknowledge this is a rather presumptuous question to pose considering we don't yet know the make-up of the second football semi-final.
Perhaps an underdog will upset the prospects of the dream semi-final, but it's unlikely.
There is little in the formbook to suggest it will be anything other than a Dublin v Donegal semi-final, one that GAA fans will relish.
The more Dublin seem unbeatable, the more people outside of Dublin now want them beaten and, for many, Jim McGuinness will be the man to mastermind such a feat.
Should the clash come to pass, theories on systems and formations will be the order of the day, but sometimes such talk is overdone.
Watch these two teams today, see how they're moving. Forget tactics and talk of blanket defences, just let your own eyes be a judge of a team's capabilities.
After all, matches were never played on pieces of paper detailing formations.
If it materialises, this will be a game anticipated as much as the final itself. Unless, of course, it's a Dublin v Kerry decider. But that is a conversation for another day.