Wednesday 17 January 2018

Jamesie O'Connor: Inspired Treaty can expose chinks in Kilkenny's armour

Fast start will give the underdogs belief they can topple Cody's men, says Jamesie O'Connor

Richie Hogan, Kilkenny
Richie Hogan, Kilkenny

Jamesie O'Connor

Before looking forward, it's often more insightful to look back. When these sides last met in the quarter-final two years ago, Kilkenny were coming off the back of a shock Leinster final defeat to Galway. Five minutes into the second half, they looked like a side struggling to shake that lethargy off.

Richie Power had been carted off after a brutal hit from Wayne McNamara, there was no Brian Hogan to marshal the defence, and after Limerick had drawn level, the upset looked a real possibility. Did they have anything left in the tank? Could they summon a response?

Twelve minutes and 2-5 without reply later, not only was the game over as a contest with 20 minutes left, but those questions had been emphatically answered. While Henry Shefflin had hit 2-2 in the opening period to keep Kilkenny in it, others stood up in the second half, with the biggest contributions coming from his Ballyhale Shamrocks team-mates.

Colin Fennelly was immense, and his brother Michael, along with midfield partner Michael Rice, took over completely in that sector of the field. TJ Reid made a huge contribution off the bench and their half-back line completely shut down the Limerick puck-out in the second period.

Once they got ahead and had a lead to defend, Fennelly and Rice sat noticeably further back, the half-forwards came deeper into midfield, and it was like the Kilkenny of old - tons of space to exploit at one end, and very, very difficult to break down at the other. Even with some new personnel at the back, the tried-and-tested defensive formation looked impregnable. Just five points in the last half an hour reflected how effective Kilkenny were in congesting the space and squeezing the life out of the Limerick attack. But that was then and this is now.

On paper, it's essentially the same Limerick team; 12 of the side that started on that occasion will take the field today, and the other three - Seamus Hickey, Paul Browne and Kevin Downes - all featured off the bench. But there's a world of difference in how they view themselves in 2014. Successive Munster final and All-Ireland semi-final appearances mean that the young and inexperienced side Kilkenny swatted away is unlikely to be dismissed as easily today.

The boys of that afternoon, Declan Hannon, Shane Dowling, Graeme Mulcahy, Downes, and Browne are men now; older, stronger and wiser. Even with 34-year-old captain Donal O'Grady back in the side to skew it, this is a team in its prime.

Considering the know-how they've since gained and the maturity a couple of years playing at this level brings, Limerick are a better side. John Allen may have departed, but in his tenure accountability for results and how the team performed was transferred to the players. They have accepted that responsibility, and taken ownership of the team. That's what enabled them to overcome the managerial upheaval earlier this year, and maintain their status as genuine All-Ireland contenders.

Yet to win today requires a significant step forward. I have watched Dowling, Hannon and Downes at schools level since they were teenagers. They have as much talent and skill as their Kilkenny, Tipperary or Cork counterparts. The question is, have they got the temperament and drive to do what so many of the Kilkenny lads have done so often over the years, and that's deliver a big display on this stage, at this point in the season.

Average will not get it done; not today against this opposition. They won't all play well, but at least one of them has to grab this game by the scruff of the neck, stamp their authority on it, and deliver a 1-5, 2-2 or 0-6 from play performance.

That's possible, because I still think there are question marks about the pace in the Kilkenny defence. Neither Offaly nor Dublin had the forwards or speed in attack to cause them any real anxiety. Because both also deployed sweepers, Kilkenny had the luxury of an extra defender for long spells on both occasions. There were signs against Galway and in the Leinster final though, like Colm Cronin's first-half goal, as well as the two gilt-edged goal chances midway through the second half that Dublin created but didn't take, that Kilkenny can be opened up when teams run at them.

That may be easier said than done, but TJ Ryan has to have stressed the need to get the ball into Dowling, Downes and Mulcahy quickly in order to engineer situations where they get the opportunity to take on JJ Delaney and Jackie Tyrrell. The faster they get the ball in, the more likely they'll find themselves one-on-one rather than having three or four defenders to beat. If that happens then Downes in particular, who I've been trumping up all year, has the pace to expose a chink or two in Kilkenny's armour.

Of course tactically, Kilkenny will do everything they can to protect their full-back line. Playing Eoin Larkin as a third midfielder as they did to telling effect in the Leinster final not only gives them a physical presence in that area. And with the return of Michael Fennelly, who may also spend time out there, Brian Hogan will be able to sit a little deeper. However, if Limerick play Declan Hannon at centre-forward, as I think they should, he has the ability and accuracy to pick off scores from distance, which reduces the leeway Hogan has to drop back.

It'll be interesting too to see which of the Limerick midfielders picks up Richie Hogan. Nullifying Hogan's and TJ Reid's influence is paramount if Kilkenny are to be stopped, because in Henry Shefflin, Richie Power and Michael Fennelly's absence, that duo have stepped up and been the driving forces. James Ryan and Paul Browne have done a similar job for Limerick. The amount of ground they cover, and their work rate are tremendous assets to have. However, because that role involves dropping back to help out their half-back line, their own half-forwards need to match that work rate and be alive to the threat Hogan, in particular, presents.

Kilkenny are too savvy to be bullied

so Limerick must be disciplined with their defending

The other key if Limerick are to win is whether or not their half-back line can get on top. There are no doubts about their abilities going forward. The questions centre on going backwards and how well they attend to their defensive duties. The Munster final was a bad day at the office for all three, and while they were dominant and much improved against Wexford, Kilkenny will punish them if they allow the type of space they afforded Cork back in July.

At their best, Limerick bring a level of aggression and physicality that is never easy to play against. It's a central tenet woven into the fibre of that green jersey, but today it has to be controlled. Indiscipline crucified Galway in the first half of their Leinster semi-final replay, as TJ Reid slotted free after free, many of them needlessly conceded. Kilkenny are too long in the tooth to be bullied, so controlled aggression and disciplined defending from Limerick is the order of the day. That's something that's a lot easier to pull off when you're first to the ball.

The easy conclusion to draw is that Kilkenny are still too talented and experienced to lose today. If, as they have done time and time again over the years, they impose their will and game plan on the opposition, will Limerick have the answers? The changes Brian Cody has made have rejuvenated the team and there is a freshness and energy about them they didn't possess in 2013. Pádraig Walsh has been a big addition and Paul Murphy and Cillian Buckley have been outstanding. They also have significantly greater depth on the bench, and a choice of several impact subs that can make a difference, including Shefflin and Power.

In addition, they still retain that ability to put a sustained scoring burst together, especially in the third quarter that takes the game away from their opponents. But for all that, I'm not sure Kilkenny are where they were in 2012. The gap then was nine points. Limerick are surely five or six points better. All it takes is for Kilkenny to be three or four points poorer, and it becomes a 50-50 contest.

I think there's a big performance in Limerick. Not performing in Croke Park last year, and watching Clare walk off with the prize, will have eaten away at them all winter. Don't underestimate the motivation that invokes, particularly for those that soldiered with and against many of those same Clare players at schools and colleges levels.

If they get the start they need, and don't have to chase it, I think they have a great chance. It's a huge leap of faith to believe they can deliver under the sustained pressure Kilkenny will put them under but I'm prepared to put my head on the block and tip them. An awful lot needs to go right, and they will need whatever luck is going, but Limerick's hunger just might get them home.

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