Jamesie O'Connor: Tipperary are there for the taking and I think today's game is Limerick's to lose
Before looking ahead, a glance back. Two moments from last weekend. Tullamore, 7.12 on Saturday night. Eoghan Cahill has just pulled off a brilliant stop from a Joe Canning penalty - one of several outstanding saves by the Offaly goalkeeper - and it energises the home crowd. Within a minute, Shane Dooley is through, with only James Skehill to beat at the other end of the field. He doesn't miss chances like these. Goal for Offaly, six-point swing and a game that could have been over, is very much back on. Realistically, the home supporters know they're not going to win, but the team is giving it their all. That's good enough for most of them, and the buzz inside the ground is palpable.
Parnell Park at 3.21 on Sunday. Just seven minutes left, but at least three more will be added on. Chris Crummey, defiantly heroic all afternoon, lands a mammoth score to push Dublin five points clear. 3-15 to 0-19. The shock of all shocks to start the hurling championship is still a live possibility. And Parnell Park, awash with Dublin jerseys, is praying for a final whistle that doesn't come quickly enough.
Officially at least, there were fewer than 10,000 paying punters at both games. That's irrelevant. What's important is that both - at least to me as a neutral on the terraces - felt like a proper championship match should. If last weekend is anything to go by, the GAA have got it absolutely right with the home and away venues. Two final points. Firstly, both Galway and Wexford will be privately thankful they've the Dubs at home and aren't travelling to the bear-pit Pat Gilroy's side made Parnell Park last weekend. Secondly, I tipped Waterford to come out of Munster in these pages last Sunday. Perhaps I underestimated the magnitude of the task ahead of them without the benefit of home advantage.
The Munster Championship begins today and there are a pair of round two matches in Leinster. The first in a series of massive hurling Sundays over the next five weeks gets off to a mouth-watering start at 2.0 in the Gaelic Grounds. Tipperary, looking more vulnerable than anyone could have envisaged in early April, head into a fixture that was always fraught with danger, .
When these two last met in the championship in Thurles two years ago, Tipperary could afford to lose 'Bubbles' O'Dwyer to a straight red before half-time and still have enough in their locker to beat Limerick comfortably. It's impossible to see that being the case today, especially after seeing the team named by Michael Ryan. Tipperary have no fewer than five players making their first championship starts. There's no Seamus Callanan, Brendan Maher, James Barry, Michael Breen or 'Bonner' Maher. Injury means Cathal Barrett and Mickey Cahill aren't even numbered among the replacements.
Two months ago, at least five of that septet were automatic inclusions if fully fit. A debutant goalkeeper, Brian Hogan; a full-back with no championship experience in the position; another rookie at corner-back and a completely new midfield pairing with zero championship minutes under their belts. On paper at least, it's a long way removed from the side that mowed down everyone bar Galway to win it all just two years ago.
As far as I'm concerned, there won't be a player in the Limerick dressing room who doesn't believe they can beat Tipperary after seeing that team. As a player, I always paid attention to who the opposition were starting. Don't underestimate the psychological lift it'll have given them to see so many big names not on that team sheet.
Ryan knows he has serious weaponry to call on if things aren't going to plan. But no more than Kilkenny last weekend, the "depth" you may believe you acquired during February and March may not be up to the pace and intensity required in May and June. Without Conor Fogarty, Paul Murphy and Colin Fennelly coming off the bench last Sunday, Kilkenny were dead and buried.
Remember, that's the same Kilkenny that put Tipp to the sword in the league final six weeks ago, so the bench may have to be emptied sooner than Ryan thinks. If that's the case, how match-fit are Callanan and 'Bonner', or do you throw them in and trust their big match temperament and experience to get them through? There's the added worry that with Cork coming to Thurles seven days later, does he gamble and throw Brendan Maher in coming off a hamstring injury and risk losing him for the entire campaign?
With 'Bubbles', Jason Forde and John McGrath in their full-forward line, Tipperary still have an abundance of attacking talent on the field. I still think Seamus Hickey is out of position at full-back for Limerick, and with UL team-mates McGrath and Forde's almost telepathic understanding, they'll surely engineer a couple of goal chances. They might need to take them, because I think Limerick will pose their fair share of problems for the Tipperary rearguard.
I like the team John Kiely has picked. He's gone for physically imposing players in both his half-back and half-forward lines. In Seamus Flanagan and Aaron Gillane, they've found two quality starters, in a part of the team - the full-forward line - that required upgrading. With Diarmuid Byrnes back after missing 2017 and Cian Lynch revelling in the freedom playing at midfield affords him, Limerick have every right to feel good about their chances.
Before the teams were named I backed Tipperary to squeeze through. With the information I have now, I think it's Limerick's to lose. They'll never get a better chance to take Tipperary down and I think they'll take it.
A similar, although not as strong, argument could be made for Clare after the Cork team was also announced. It's largely along expected lines with championship debuts for Seán O'Donoghue and Robbie O'Flynn. But it's the names with the raw pace to hurt Clare that aren't on it that could prove more significant. Shane Kingston doesn't start and Alan Cadogan's knee ligament injury removes one of Cork's biggest threats, and a player who has tormented the Banner in recent years.
This is a game that I find increasingly hard to call. If Cork hit the ground running, and their younger players kick on from last year, they could win by ten points. It's their first championship match in the new Páirc Uí Chaoimh, the home crowd will outnumber the Clare contingent ten to one, and with Tipperary and Limerick to come in the next fortnight, they know it's imperative to start with a win. Deep down, they don't fear today's opponents and since losing the All-Ireland final replay five years ago, have pretty much had Clare's number.
Reports out of the Clare camp are very positive. Challenge matches have gone well, key players are finding form and outside of concerns about Séadhna Morey's availability, they seem to have a clean bill of health.
I also think the Clare management will have learnt a lot from last year's Munster final. How poorly they used the ball, the crazy shooting from distance and the tactical straitjacket they found themselves wrapped in on the Cork puck-out, were all mistakes that surely won't be repeated.
What should also make a difference is the hurt and disappointment this team has carried for the last four years. This is Clare's most important game of the season and to advance in Munster they have to get a result. That means their big players have to perform. From David McInerney at full-back, to Colm Galvin and Tony Kelly in the middle of the field, and on to Shane O'Donnell and Conor McGrath in attack, Clare's top players have to deliver.
Kelly was fantastic against Limerick in the league quarter-final and Clare simply can't afford him to be marginalised - going for ten or 15 minutes without a possession, watch him swipe a couple of scores, and then disappear again, as has happened in recent years. He has to impose his will on the game this afternoon and if he and Galvin are at their best, they're capable of putting Cork on the back foot.
Watching Clare, the lack of service to McGrath and O'Donnell continues to frustrate me. They don't deserve to win if the players out the field can't recognise the weapons these guys potentially are, and get the ball into them. If they do, I'm convinced good things will happen, irrespective of how impressive Cork's corner-backs might be.
It's stating the obvious that in Lehane, Horgan and Harnedy, Cork have their own match-winners, and it's here the game will be won and lost. Cadogan is a huge loss, and Luke Meade doesn't present the same attacking threat, so if they get their match-ups right - David McInerney on Harnedy, Morey on Horgan, and avoid conceding the needless frees they were guilty of during the league, they have every chance.
It's still a leap of faith to tip Clare. While it's not beyond the bounds of possibility that Cork and Tipp will both go into next weekend with their backs to the wall, the odds are that at least one of them will win today. I think it's more likely to be Cork. But only narrowly.
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