The chasing pack of five have won thing in common – the distance they share from the Treaty County
Limerick’s performance in the second half of the Munster final last week has set a level that hasn’t been reached since the peak reached by the Kilkenny team between 2006 and 2009, chiefly 2008 and early ‘09 when they were imperious.
The race for the MacCarthy Cup has narrowed to six, but there is general acceptance that the champions remain out in front and may have stretched further ahead with the power of that performance against Tipperary.
So who leads the chasing pack? Kilkenny will bring fire and combativeness, Cork the pace, Waterford the hard running and Tipperary the craft and experience. But can they bring it all together at the same time over the next few weeks?
The team to beat, but how far ahead are they? The Treaty county had to be at their very best to overcome Tipperary in the Munster final, but that their opponents got 10 points ahead of them at one stage at least gives the chasing pack some hope.
There was some evidence of uncertainty that Tipperary’s Jason Forde was able to exploit from centre-forward in the opening half. With Seamus Flanagan and Peter Casey in the full-forward line nailing down places and Dan Morrissey and Aaron Gillane restored the next day, there won’t be any deviation to Limerick’s team selection. Does any other manager have such a definite ‘one to 15’ as John Kiely?
They have strength through every line but the dominance of their middle eight is, if anything, increasing with Kyle Hayes’ switch to wing-back causing havoc for opponents.
If there is a chink in their armoury it’s discipline. Aaron Gillane should have been red carded the last day but stayed on and was a big influence. Others have sailed close to the wind too, but it’s unlikely to cost them.
Perhaps Tipp can look on the bright side after their latest attempt to halt the Limerick juggernaut.
They’ve gone from a 12-point defeat to nine and most recently a deficit of five. At least it’s heading in the right direction. But it’s small comfort.
Still, to build a 10-point lead against the All-Ireland champions the last day points to a lot going right for them before they were overwhelmed.
Liam Sheedy has arguably the biggest team selection dilemmas of his second coming ahead of this week after some impressive late cameos the last day.
Does he keep some of the team’s vast experience in reserve to finish strong, allowing fresh legs to track Waterford runners in the opening exchanges? At their best, they are still Limerick’s closest pursuers.
Kilkenny haven’t had to set the world alight with their retention of the Leinster hurling title, but there have been encouraging signs outside of the continued well-being of TJ Reid, such as Huw Lawlor’s impact at full-back, the slow but sure return to form of Adrian Mullen and James Maher’s three-point contribution the last day.
But there are continuing questions around where best to site Pádraig Walsh and what the best midfield pairing is.
Being the last team to beat Limerick in a championship game has to mean something too, even if they are avoiding each other in the semi-final.
The value of a championship win of the magnitude and manner of last Saturday against Clare can’t be overestimated for the current management and team. They’ll draw loads from it.
As a team, they haven’t handled knockout championship situations too well over the previous five seasons with just wins over Dublin (twice) and Westmeath overshadowed by losses to Wexford, Waterford, Limerick, Kilkenny and Tipperary when the safety net of the province was removed. No doubt, they are bringing real pace to the game and a clear goal threat.
Have they stumbled across a full-back of the future in Robert Downey, capitalising on Damien Cahalane’s absence?
Beside him, Seán O’Donoghue has developed into a compact, effective corner-back. Shane Barrett might have an even bigger say in this championship yet too.
Their record against Dublin is strong and momentum can carry them to Croke Park where they can expect further improvement again.
Liam Cahill continues to extract big performances from Waterford. Any threat of ‘second season syndrome’ was removed in Thurles last Saturday when they blitzed Galway with a running game that their opponents had no answer to for so long.
The difference Jamie Barron makes when he’s there was plain to see while Dessie Hutchinson is developing into one of the game’s best forwards.
Down Tadhg de Búrca and then Iarlaith Daly, Shane Bennett stepped into centre-back with consummate ease on Saturday, illustrating what a talented hurler he is, when the temptation might have been to reposition Austin Gleeson there.
Gleeson continues to maintain a rich vein of form. They don’t have the depth of other squads however so the loss of Daly and the suspended Conor Gleeson puts pressure on the defence.
The shine from their Leinster semi-final win over Galway may have dimmed a little in time for Thurles on Saturday, but it’s still a decent benchmark to get to.
The loss of two starters and two replacements to Covid precautions (one positive case and three close contacts) and then Eoghan O’Donnell so early against Kilkenny ultimately caught up with them but the quartet are all expected back this weekend.
The gains from the early rounds of the Leinster Championship won’t be easily given away, but still, 1-18 against Galway and 0-15 against Kilkenny don’t point to a flowing attack, despite Danny Sutcliffe’s resurgence and Chris Crummey’s conversion. Of the six remaining, they look to have the least firepower.