Friday 6 December 2019

Experience can put Munster duo on the road to Croker

Based on recent form, it's hard to oppose 
Tipp and Limerick

'I still believe that TJ Ryan could do with giving Downes a stinit on the edge of the square...in my opinion, it's his best position'
'I still believe that TJ Ryan could do with giving Downes a stinit on the edge of the square...in my opinion, it's his best position'

Jamesie O'Connor

About an hour after the Wexford-Waterford match had finished last weekend, I watched Liam Dunne and his players board the team bus to make their exit from Nowlan Park. When the police escort pulled out to lead the way, the flashing lights caught the attention of the numerous Wexford supporters lingering in the environs. Still buzzing with the high of what had been another thrilling match, they raised their arms and voiced their appreciation. The smiles on the faces inside and outside the bus said it all about what a victory like that can do for the morale of a county.

I remember coming out of Parnell Park 13 months ago after Dublin had emphatically won their Leinster quarter-final replay and there weren't too many Wexford supporters loitering around. The two or three former players I met on the way out seemed disillusioned as much as disappointed with the display they had just witnessed. What a difference a year makes.

As I've said in these pages even prior to the Dublin game a month or so ago, this is a better Wexford team, with better players, playing to a much better system. The youngsters Dunne has introduced, particularly Conor McDonald, Liam óg McGovern and Liam Ryan, have made a noticeable difference, and this is a side freewheeling forward, revelling in the momentum they've generated through the qualifiers.

As it was in Ennis, and Wexford Park on the previous weekend, the atmosphere was electric in Kilkenny last Saturday, and I'd imagine these lads can't wait to hit the field in Thurles at 2.0 today. Fatigue and the fact they're heading into a fourth championship match in just 22 days will not be an issue. They've experienced what winning a big championship match means, and now they've gotten a taste of it will be hell-bent on keeping this run going.

From a Limerick perspective, though, the fact that all the talk and hype has centred on Wexford is ideal. TJ Ryan's side lost nothing in defeat to Cork in the Munster final. Better finishing when they had the opportunities early on, coupled with smarter decision-making on the ball, particularly when they fell behind and tried to force things, and the result might well have been different.

Nonetheless, this is not a game Limerick can sleepwalk into. They've had Wexford's number in the league in recent years, but favouritism is not a tag Limerick carry well. In addition, having put it up to Cork, seeing how comprehensively the Rebels beat both Clare and Waterford, Wexford's last two opponents, they may be telling themselves, that on the basis of that form, they've nothing to fear. That may be the case, but only if they play to the same level they produced against Tipp and Cork.

I think Limerick underestimated the form and momentum Clare garnered coming through the qualifiers last year, and paid the price. A similarly anaemic performance today against a fast-improving Wexford side that will fight tooth and nail for everything, and this game becomes a 50-50 contest.

Ten different Limerick players got on the scoresheet in the Munster final. But apart from Shane Dowling and Graeme Mulcahy, who each got three from play, no other Limerick forward did enough to stamp their authority on the game.

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The Wexford full-back line, assuming Keith Rossiter makes it, has largely played well, so they could do with Kevin Downes, and Declan Hannon especially, showing some form and playing to the standard they can. I still believe that TJ Ryan could do with giving Downes a stint on the edge of the square. If Limerick are to go all the way, his talents will need to be fully utilised and, in my opinion, it's his best position.

What Limerick can't expect at the back is for Wexford to keep accumulating the type of wides that nearly let Clare and Waterford off the hook. In fairness, they were far more efficient with the ball in the first half last Saturday, and didn't register their first wide until the 29th minute. Yet the bad decision-making and poor execution that almost undid them against Clare crept in as the game progressed. The final wides tally was 16 - Cork and Kilkenny rarely make it into double figures - and they can't keep getting away with that level of profligacy in front of goal.

The Limerick defence had their own problems last time out too, but given this is Wexford's sixth game in the championship, there is plenty of video evidence available to dissect and analyse where their strengths and weaknesses lie.

They will know all about McDonald and McGovern and will have planned accordingly. Crucially, I don't believe Wexford's half-forward line can hurt them to the extent Cork's did and while Lee Chin has been excellent for them in midfield, I think Limerick can win enough of the other individual battles in that middle third to swing the match in their favour.

Regardless of today's result, Wexford can look on 2014 as a successful year. Put another way, they can afford to lose. With no promotion, and no Munster title to hang their hat on, Limerick can't. There's too much experience, physicality, not to mention the pain from last year's semi-final defeat, in that dressing room for them not to make it back to Croke Park in August. I expect them to be there.

* * * * *

As the clock ticked into the 49th minute in this year's Leinster final, Dublin, having played second fiddle for most of the game, still trailed Kilkenny by just five points.

In the next four minutes, at a stage when they needed to make something happen, they created two really good goal-scoring chances, opportunities they obviously needed to take. Neither were converted.

More worrying is that, incredibly, they failed to add a solitary point to their tally from there to the end of a match that they ultimately lost by double scores.

Three points, two from play, in 35 minutes of championship hurling, and a paltry 1-9 in total, doesn't come close to getting the job done at this level.

Can they find sufficient improvement by 4.0 this afternoon? I'm not sure they can. Admittedly, Danny Sutcliffe and Ryan O'Dwyer, both of whom were nowhere near match-fit, will surely be in better fettle today.

Both had been replaced by the 41st minute last time out. With Conal Keaney and Alan McCrabbe failing to score from play or make any impact whatsoever, that meant the attack, with the exception of Colm Cronin, completely malfunctioned.

Unfortunately, so too did so many other parts of the team, that maybe it was just one of those days which it's impossible to legislate for. Yet, the lack of aggression, urgency or intensity in Dublin's play that afternoon is very hard to fathom.

Kilkenny were always going to be up for the game, particularly after last year's reverse. But as early as the sixth minute, when they had nothing to lose, Conal Keaney elected to tap a Dublin penalty over the bar, rather than roll the dice and go for goal.

Playing a side that don't usually cough up too many goal opportunities, it was a conservative decision that left you wondering about Dublin's mindset. There were times, too, when fast ball into their inside forwards which might have reaped dividends was eschewed in favour of retaining possession, and Kilkenny lapped it up. I'm sure it was never the intention, but Dublin seemed to spend most of that game going backwards and sideways, and watching the tape back afterwards must have been a sobering experience.

By contrast, 24 hours earlier, the Tipperary hurlers had found themselves in a similar predicament. Down by six to Galway with 20 minutes left, they too were staring at oblivion. What they produced in that time was a pretty emphatic response to those who doubted them. Outscoring their opponents by 2-10 to a single point in reply, they not only retrieved what was looking to be a lost cause, but in the process regained their confidence and rediscovered their goal touch.

They carried that into the Offaly game and those matches have enabled the attack to establish a rhythm that makes them very dangerous opponents. Tipp have a lot of flair and finishers up front, and consequently Dublin simply cannot afford to get drawn into a shoot-out today.

That places a huge onus on Liam Rushe and the rest of the Dublin half-backs and half-forwards to garner the lion's share of possession and deny the Tipp forwards any space and time on the ball. Even at that, the defence will still have to play really well, because even with 40 per cent of the ball, Tipp will put scores on the board.

And while Tipp have had their own issues at the back, unless Dublin can plunder two or three goals, something they haven't shown any evidence they've the ability to do, it's hard to see them amassing the type of tally required to beat Tipp in their own back yard.

There's surely a performance in Dublin, but I expect Tipp to be too slick, too sharp and too accurate up front to be beaten, given the momentum they now have behind them. Tipperary and Limerick to join Cork and Kilkenny in the last four.

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