Potent Dublin force too good for Limerick
IF Dublin hurling supporters were told this time last year that, come next Sunday, they would be heading to Thurles to support the National League and Walsh Cup champions in their drive to reach the All-Ireland semi-final, they would have assumed it was wishful thinking gone mad.
Well, it's not. Whatever happens tomorrow, this has been Dublin's best season for decades and if they beat Limerick and book a place in the last four it can be argued that 2011 is the best year since they last won the All-Ireland senior title in 1938. It's not just the senior squad who are taking Dublin to new heights -- the minors and U-21s are Leinster champions and fancied to do well at All-Ireland level.
The most crucial development in Dublin after the unexpected qualifier defeat by Antrim last year was that Anthony Daly (pictured) stayed on. He thought long and hard about whether he should leave them as a work-in-progress before finally coming to the correct conclusion that he was best placed to get more out of them.
He has certainly done that and while people questioned after the Leinster final whether they were good enough to take things to the next level, they are missing the point. Sure, Dublin were out-gunned by Kilkenny but how many others would have suffered a similar fate?
It was part of the advanced learning curve that Dublin are on, the next stage of which takes them in against Limerick. It's a huge game for both counties, although the need to win is probably that bit more urgent for Dublin.
Limerick have stabilised after the chaos of last year and while it would be a fantastic achievement to reach the All-Ireland semi-final, it wouldn't disrupt the rebuild if they were to lose. Dublin are more advanced than Limerick in squad development terms, so it would be a setback if they were to blow an opportunity against a team who wouldn't have been rated in the top six at the start of the year.
One aspect I'm looking forward to centres on how Limerick cope with Dublin's in-your-face style. As the scoring returns show, Dublin's approach, which involves taking on opponents with ball in hand or hurley, has yielded a high return from frees.
In contrast, Limerick have been very disciplined -- certainly according to the referees -- in their last two games, conceding only 15 frees against Wexford and Antrim. Donal O'Grady will be highlighting the need to keep the free count down so that Dublin have to find alternative scoring methods to Paul Ryan's deadly accuracy off place balls.
Much is also being made of Dublin's relatively low goal-scoring rate but it's not something they should worry about. It's all about the finishing tally and Dublin have amassed enough in most games this year to beat the opposition, so where's the problem?
Their goal rate would probably improve if they could post Liam Rushe closer to the opposition goal but, in the main, it's not something Daly will worry about. Besides, the longer either a drought or a deluge continues the more likely it is to end, so who's to say that Dublin won't hit Limerick for two goals in the first 20 minutes tomorrow?
There's a huge sense of optimism in Limerick these days and that will be reflected in the crowd who travel to Thurles. In fairness, the appointment of O'Grady as manager was a smart move. He came as a winner and has restored pride in Limerick after the nonsense that wrecked them -- and damaged hurling in general -- last year. He has brought a discernible change to their style, mainly in terms of playing with their heads up rather than driving the ball first time.
They handpass more than they used to and it has worked well for them. But it's important for Limerick to retain some of the direct style associated with the county and, in fairness, they have been doing that too.
Will they beat Dublin? I don't think so. Limerick would always believe they are better than Dublin, so they won't be short of confidence but I regard this as a very potent Dublin force which, if it plays to its strengths, should be good enough to book a semi-final place. Conal Keaney's absence will be a loss, but I still think they will win.