Monday 23 October 2017

John Mullane: Cats to keep old order intact

Crystal ball tells me Cody's men will have final revenge over powerful Dubs

Kilkenny captain Colin Fennelly leads his charges into battle
Kilkenny captain Colin Fennelly leads his charges into battle

John Mullane

IN a summer of hurling magic, I suspect there are more twists and turns to come in the race to be crowned All-Ireland senior champions.

Here, I gaze into my crystal ball to predict the winners and losers from now until September 8.

My calls are based on Clare beating Galway and Kilkenny overcoming Cork in next Sunday's quarter-finals at Semple Stadium. but the beauty of this remarkable championship is its sheer unpredictability.

KILKENNY

Why they could win it: They are the champions and have won six of the last seven All-Ireland titles.

The Cats are trying to emulate what the Kerry footballers did in the late '70s and early '80s, when they won four in a row, were foiled in their bid for a fifth, but returned again to win three in a row.

And if you look around at the five other teams left in the race, there's just one player with an All-Ireland senior medal and that's Cork's Tom Kenny.

That has to count for something and the longer Kilkenny stay in the championship, the stronger they'll get with TJ Reid, Michael Fennelly and possibly Henry Shefflin getting more game time.

Why they are vulnerable: Kilkenny look shaky when teams run at them and Cork have the players to trouble the Cats in next Sunday's quarter-final.

The Rebels should adopt a similar gameplan to Waterford nine days ago, using short puckouts and getting runners on the ball.

Cork have speed with players like Conor Lehane, Pa Cronin, Jamie Coughlan and Cathal Naughton, if he's sprung from the bench.

And there are still question marks hanging over the depth of the Kilkenny squad, as I've consistently argued.

Key player: Michael Fennelly

Verdict: Champions

CORK

Why they could win it: The Jimmy Barry-Murphy factor. Plus Cork are Cork and history has shown that you can never rule them out. Rescinding the red card given to Patrick Horgan in the Munster final was the right call.

I appealed for common sense to prevail in last Monday's column and, thankfully, that has come to pass. With Horgan on board, Cork have a chance of beating Kilkenny.

The Rebels also possess a super goalkeeper in Anthony Nash, who dictates matters from the back.

Why they are vulnerable: Conor Lehane has been very poor in this championship and appears to be low on confidence. Cork desperately need him to catch fire.

Brian Murphy's loss through injury is another huge factor and he had emerged as a real leader following the departure of so many big names in recent years.

Cork are also missing players like Eoin Cadogan, Darren Sweetnam, Aidan Walsh and Damien Cahalane. If they had them, they'd be a serious outfit.

Key man: Conor Lehane

Verdict: Beaten quarter-finalists

LIMERICK

Why they could win it: John Allen has Limerick well organised and the first half of the Munster final really opened my eyes to how tactically aware they are.

They're very hard to break down and when they withdraw their half-forward line, Seamus Hickey plays as an auxiliary wing-back. Cork had a lot of wides in the first half, but Limerick were forcing them to shoot from distance.

Limerick have a good bench, are very fit and with momentum and that huge following behind them, they are live contenders.

Why they are vulnerable: The long break between the Munster final and All-Ireland semi-final is an issue. And how will they deal with the hype in the county? We found it very difficult to cope with that in Waterford and no matter how hard Allen tries to insulate his players from it, it's almost impossible for them to block it out.

And when you've won the Munster title for the first time in 17 years, it must be very hard to remain grounded.

We won't find out how they've been affected by it until they hit the ground running on semi-final Sunday.

Key man: Declan Hannon (pictured)

Verdict: Beaten semi-finalists (against Kilkenny)

CLARE

Why they could win it: They're young, energetic and the wide-open spaces of Thurles and Croke Park will suit them.

They're coming off the back of U-21 All-Ireland success in 2009 and 2012 and they have also been competitive in the minor grade.

In Clare's last two games, they've racked up 4-56 and they were unlucky against Cork in the Munster semi-final.

What they have, as we saw against Wexford, is a very good squad and players to come off the bench, which could prove vital.

Tony Kelly is so important to Clare and when he drifts out to play as a third midfielder, his marker has to follow, thereby creating space inside for a two-man full-forward line.

Why they are vulnerable: There is still a tendency to over-elaborate on the short game and I've discussed this with Davy Fitzgerald. There are also big question marks over their full-back and Davy has a big call to make next Sunday.

Does he stick with David McInerney on Joe Canning or does Brendan Bugler drop back to do a man-marking job, like he did in the league?

The other big worry for Clare is the amount of chances they miss. The flipside, of course, is that they're creating a huge amount of opportunities.

If Clare do decide to go more direct, more often, they'll be dangerous opponents and I'm backing them to reach the semi-finals.

Key man: Tony Kelly

Verdict: Beaten semi-finalists (against Dublin)

GALWAY

Why they could win it: Joe Canning. And they're contenders if they can rediscover the form from last year's Leinster final and All-Ireland final days.

But if Galway are going to win it, they have to revert to the system that served them so well last year. And that means bringing Damien Hayes back out as a third midfielder.

I suspect that there are too many imponderables surrounding Galway at this point in time and the two Burkes – Niall and David – have to find last year's form, too, if they're going to push on and land that elusive All-Ireland crown.

Why they are vulnerable: Galway are such a Jekyll and Hyde team. You don't know what you're going to get with them.

The spine of their team is also questionable and there are problems at full-back and centre-back. Canning is their main man, but he's also one of the reasons why they won't win it, because if Joe is held, Galway don't have the scoring power from other areas to compensate.

And they haven't shown any signs in their league matches or championship outings against Laois and Dublin to suggest that they are All-Ireland contenders.

Key man: Joe Canning

Verdict: Beaten quarter-finalists

DUBLIN

Why they could win it: They're strong, fast and their hurling has vastly improved compared to 12 months ago.

They're so well organised and balanced under Anthony Daly and they have a plan in place, similar to Allen and Limerick.

When All-Ireland semi-final day arrives, Dublin will have a massive following behind them and they have Conal Keaney and Stephen Hiney providing real physicality in the two key lines – half-forward and half-back.

Liam Rushe has been a real tower of strength for the Dubs at centre-back. Moving him there raised eyebrows, but Daly has been proven absolutely correct.

Why they are vulnerable: Again, like Limerick, the long break could hurt them. Dublin were on a real roll, momentum was with them, but then, bang – it's like a train pulling into a station.

I just wonder how quickly they'll get out of the blocks in the semi-final.

At the moment, Dublin are the team of the championship and look like champions-elect, but a side that could possibly beat them will have serious momentum with them.

Clare's short game has the potential to undo Dublin, but they'll reach the final and fall victim to a Kilkenny revenge mission.

Key man: Liam Rushe

Verdict: Beaten finalists

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