Cyril Farrell: 'There's more than enough in Kilkenny's game to worry Limerick'
THERE'S a view out there that Limerick would prefer to be playing Kilkenny, rather than Cork, because the Rebels beat them in league and championship this year and should have beaten them in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final.
I don't go with that. I have no doubt that Limerick would have all the answers for Cork this time, whereas they will only have some of them against Kilkenny. Probably enough to win, although this contest is far less predictable than the odds suggest.
On one side is a team bursting with confidence after winning three titles in the last 11 months, and on the other is a solid group from a county with a tradition for mixing resilience and defiance like no other.
This may well be Limerick’s best-ever squad and while that’s not the case with Kilkenny, the legacy of the past is still a big help. Their players always believe in themselves and that won’t change today, irrespective of what Limerick throw at them.
And throw they will! Their pressure game is very hard to counteract for two reasons. One, they have it down to the finest of arts. Two, they have the right blend of exceptional talent to apply it.
The tactical battle between Brian Cody and John Kiely will be fascinating. I know there's a tendency sometimes to overstate the importance of set-up, match-up and puck-out strategies, but this is certainly one game where they will be very important.
We have all seen how Limerick play through the lines with short passes, carrying the ball almost like footballers as they try to manoeuvre into shooting positions. It’s not one-trick-pony stuff either, as they will go long on occasion as well. In fact, they are very good at mixing it up.
Here’s the dilemma for the opposition. Limerick’s half-forwards drop deep to become part of the advancing army, so do you follow them or hold your ground and let others pick them up? If you opt for the latter, you’ll be outnumbered in the middle third and if your half-backs go with them, it leaves space in your half, allowing Limerick to pop deliveries into open territory in front of Aaron Gillane, Peter Casey and Graeme Mulcahy. Now it’s danger time, as that deadly trio have room to manoeuvre.
I would play a sweeper to cover that space, but it's not something Cody favours, certainly not in terms of tagging one man specifically to do the job. He prefers the midfielders and half-forwards to drop back in unison and go forward in the same manner when Kilkenny have possession.
He will also have his team well-drilled in getting in the first tackles. A passing game only works if the player delivering the ball isn't under pressure. If there’s an opponent in his face, the precision won’t be there and the system breaks down.
Another area well worth watching is how Kilkenny deal with Nickie Quaid's puck-outs. I expect them to push up, forcing him to go long a lot of the time. When Limerick do that, they often line up their half-forwards and midfielders straight down the middle.
A defender’s natural instinct is to stay inside and slightly behind the attacker, but that doesn't work against Limerick because Quaid then pops the ball down the wings and his forwards have first run as they are outside their marker.
When Limerick try that tomorrow, the Kilkenny defenders – well, some of them anyway – will be outside their opponents, so as not to be caught out in the sprint for possession.
There’s no better tactician than Cody to figure out the opposition, so what worked for Limerick so far might not won’t necessarily be as effective this time.
Besides, it’s not all about Limerick. Everyone has a plan until it collapses and there’s more than enough in Kilkenny's game to worry Limerick.
For instance, who will shadow TJ Reid, the best hurler in the country?
Declan Hannon is an excellent reader of the game, but he’s not a specialist man-marker like, say, Seán Finn. He would be ideal for the job, but Kiely won’t take him out of the full-back line.
Instead, he will probably try to get extra support for whoever is specifically assigned to Reid. It really is all very fascinating.
Anything is possible where Kilkenny are concerned, but I think this challenge will be just beyond them. Limerick have hit every target over the last year and are good enough to do it again and take their place in the final.
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If ever there was a clash of styles, it's in Tipperary v Wexford. Tipp want a loose, open game while Wexford want it so tight and taxing that it becomes an all-out war. If it does, they have a great chance of winning because they’re built for that type of game.
We know that Wexford will play a sweeper, which will make it difficult for Tipperary’s inside forwards. Liam Sheedy knows that, so I'd expect them to test their long-range missiles.
Wexford are much-improved from when a similar tactic worked for Galway in the 2017 Leinster final, but Tipp might still land enough to win.