Thursday 22 February 2018

We don't know yet if Cork have the warriors to survive a Déise storm

The outcome of today's fascinating quarter-finals will teach us a lot, writes Jamesie O'Connor

The news that the gates of Nowlan Park have been locked for training sessions since the humiliation visited on Kilkenny by Galway three weeks ago shouldn't come as any great surprise.

Above all else, after blowing away both Cork and Dublin, that performance showed that they're human. Admittedly, they ran into the perfect storm, but there's no getting away from the fact that Kilkenny never saw it coming. However, the real question, that we may only get part of the answer to today, is how much of that display was down to complacency and a lack of planning for what Galway might do, and how much of it might be attributed to the possibility that this Kilkenny side is nearing the end of its reign.

The Kilkenny players will want to believe it's the former. They patently weren't in the right frame of mind for the challenge Galway presented, and that will irk them. They'll also be telling themselves that without Michael Fennelly and Michael Rice at midfield, where Galway obliterated them until Rice's introduction, and their best defender in JJ Delaney, they were far from full strength.

The very notion, too, that people are writing them off is something else that Cody is likely to have been throwing at them this past two weeks. Ramming it down the necks of all those keen to dance on their graves will provide further motivation. So the possibility of a backlash this afternoon is something Limerick need to steel themselves for.

The strangest aspect of the Galway match was the fact that Kilkenny couldn't seem to get their hands on the ball in the opening 20 minutes. Richie Power at full-forward was starved in that period, and watching the video of Galway lording possession must have had Cody driven mad. By picking a half-forward line of Shefflin, Power and Eoin Larkin, their three best ball-winning forwards, and with Rice and Fennelly back at midfield, that issue looks to have been addressed. But it also removes some of the cutting edge from their inside line. Assuming they get a foothold early on, expect to see one of the aforementioned trio on the edge of the Limerick square before half-time.

Assuming, however, that Kilkenny will just pick up where they left off against Dublin and blow Limerick and everyone else away could be wide of the mark.

This was not like the league final loss to Dublin a year ago. It goes deeper than that, and whatever doubts it may have planted in the Kilkenny psyche, the lift and confidence it has given to Galway, Tipp and everyone else shouldn't be underestimated. The reality is that Henry Shefflin and some of their other key players are getting on. And while Shefflin's importance and leadership may not have diminished, the combined effects of injury and father time mean his abilities on the field probably have.

Brian Hogan is a loss this afternoon, particularly in his understanding of the role he's asked to play. The Tommy Walsh, Hogan and JJ Delaney half-back line that took the field last September was a lot more intimidating than the one that lines out tomorrow and while Kieran Joyce and Richie Doyle are good young players, Limerick will draw confidence from their selection.

Worrying about Kilkenny and how they're likely to react to the Galway defeat isn't something John Allen or the Limerick players are likely to have devoted any great energy to last week. Limerick just need to look after themselves and in that sense they appear to be in a very good place.

They had a serious workout against Galway last weekend and with both sides close to full strength, were well up at half-time in a genuine contest. The three wins in the qualifiers over Laois, Antrim and Clare have already given them confidence, momentum and a sense that this is a team heading in the right direction. That said, the Limerick players know that the examination that awaits them today will bear no resemblance to the tests they've already faced.

There are a couple of other things that should work in their favour, however. Firstly, playing in Thurles, a venue their players are far more familiar with, rather than Croke Park, is a big help and should ensure that Limerick supporters travel in far greater numbers than if they had to make the trek to Dublin.

Secondly, with some players who hadn't made their holy communion by the time Henry Shefflin and Noel Hickey were picking up the first of their eight All-Irelands, the intimidation and fear of Kilkenny that's a factor for so many other teams isn't likely to be there.

For various reasons, Limerick haven't been on the receiving end of the type of punishment beatings that have been regularly doled out to Cork, Waterford and others over the years. I'm not even sure how many of the Limerick players have actually played competitively against Kilkenny that often, especially given the strike of three years ago and the fact that they've spent the last two seasons in Division 2. As a result, those players carry no baggage into today and that will hopefully enable them to have a real cut and play with that bit of freedom.

While the Limerick defence and midfield are honest and hard-working, their hopes to a large extent depend on how their young players perform up front. Much rests on the young shoulders of Declan Hannon and Shane Dowling, but both corner-forwards, Graeme Mulcahy and Seán Tobin have the pace and potential to cause real problems if they see enough of the ball.

If there's a negative in Limerick's play, it's a tendency to lose concentration for periods during the game. That occurred against both Tipp and Clare and a repeat this afternoon would put any hopes of victory out of reach. Making sure they get off to their usual fast start is sure to have been spoken about during the week.

Whatever way Kilkenny look at today, the reality is that Tipp loom large in three weeks' time. It'd be perfectly understandable if the Kilkenny players have one eye on that day and they won't want to expend any more energy than is necessary today. They would love to kill this game off as early as possible, but assuming Limerick can withstand the likely initial onslaught, they can make a battle of it. Victory might be a bridge too far, but I expect Kilkenny to know they were in a battle come half five this evening.

Five years ago, the notion that Cork-Waterford would be the curtain-raiser on All-Ireland quarter-final day would have been inconceivable, especially given their inability at that time to deliver anything other than purest of entertainment.

However, the days of Dan Shanahan, Ken McGrath, Joe Deane and Ben O'Connor are gone, and while some of the old protagonists remain -- Seán óg, Tom Kenny, Brick Walsh and John Mullane to name a few -- both counties are in transition and could be regarded as fifth and sixth seeds at best. Yet with Tipp and Kilkenny on the opposite side of the draw, the landscape has changed and with it both counties' expectations. While it was barely credible a month ago, the players know that a win today and only Galway -- against whom both traditionally have great records -- stand between them and a place in the All-Ireland final.

Even after the jolt of reality the Cats administered in the league final, it's no great surprise that Cork have regrouped. However, they remain a work in progress, and with more changes from the side that started against Wexford, it's apparent they're still not sure what their best 15 is. With Damien Cahalane looking less than commanding at full-back, Stephen McDonnell gets a recall and Seán óg comes in on the wing for William Egan. While there are still questions about the defence, particularly the central positions, it looks reasonably solid. Better sides would fancy their chances of opening Cork up but I'm not sure Waterford have the firepower to do so.

Similarly, while you'd fear for Cork's new-look midfield pairing of Daniel Kearney and Pa Cronin in a battle with Kilkenny's Rice and Fennelly, it's another sector they're unlikely to be overrun in this afternoon.

With Cian and Niall McCarthy in the half-forward line, they have more ball-winning ability on the field than they did against Tipp and they've racked up big scores against Offaly and Wexford. The pace and intensity of those games, though, was a level below what we saw elsewhere, and watching Cork, you get the sense there's still something missing.

While they've a lot of nice hurlers, the question is do they have that hard edge and little bit of ruthlessness that Kilkenny, Galway and Tipp all seem to possess? There was plenty of poison in Galway the day they downed Kilkenny. I'm not so sure we've seen any evidence of that in this Cork team. So while they're hurling well, accumulating impressive tallies and developing confidence, if they get drawn into a dogfight, have they enough warriors to see them through?

After regaining some measure of pride in the Munster final after what Tipp did to them last year, getting his side up and ready for Cork is a big test of Michael Ryan's managerial ability. However, they have to look on it as a real opportunity to get something out of the year, and there's enough experience both on and off the field in the Waterford camp to ensure that happens.

That means they've got to to hit Cork with everything they have, make it physical and turn this game into a real battle. Waterford only scored five points in the second half of the Munster final and unlike the side of five years ago, just aren't equipped to win the type of open, free-scoring shootout that Cork would like. Defensively, I think they're good enough to contain Cork to a manageable tally. However, someone other than John Mullane needs to step up in attack and have a big day if they're going to mine enough scores to win.

On the basis of their greater experience, I tipped Waterford on radio during the week, but did so with no great confidence. The closer the game has got, the less convinced I've become. It's a toss of a coin, but if Shane Walsh has a big day on the edge of the square, and I think he just might, the Déise can narrowly extend their outstanding quarter-final record.

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