Saturday 21 July 2018

Michael Verney breaks down the race for Liam MacCarthy: Tribesmen to come up trumps but Cats can push them to brink

Kilkenny's physicality may undo Munster rivals but reigning champions Galway hold the aces

Kilkenny manager Brian Cody. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile

Michael Verney

Barring replays, there are only five games left in this year's hurling championship with the 'Super Six' set to decide Liam MacCarthy's destination for the next 12 months.

The wheat has been separated from the chaff with reigning champions Galway still in pole position to complete back-to-back All-Ireland titles after retaining their Leinster crown at the second attempt against Kilkenny.

But what might be giving Micheál Donoghue cause for concern as they await their opposition in the last four?

Who is likely to mount the biggest assault on the current kingpins? Will the Cats face the Tribesmen for the fourth time this year on the third Sunday in August?

Can Cork banish their recent Croke Park misery to make an All-Ireland assault? Will a Limerick side brimming with underage success come of age?

Is the competitiveness of the Munster SHC masking a lack of quality? Will Davy Fitzgerald's native Clare break Wexford hearts?

All will be revealed as the six contenders are assessed.

1 GALWAY

What makes them tick: It sounds simplistic, but Galway have outworked almost every team in the past 18 months - the drawn Leinster final aside - and when they bring that attitude, they are almost unbeatable. A maniacal work-rate from their covering midfielders and half-forwards creates endless space and opportunities for their attack.

Flaws: A rude awakening against Kilkenny blew away any complacency and Donoghue will use that as a stick to beat them with and they know that if they maintain their own high standards, they will emulate the Galway side of 1987/'88. Their biggest weakness could be themselves and believing the hype.

Key man: David Burke. Their inspirational captain controls the tempo from the middle of the park. Everyone benefits when he is on his game as he assists greatly with defensive duties while also delivering quick ball up front.

Forecast: Back-to-back All-Ireland titles beckon.

2 KILKENNY

What makes them tick: Against all odds, the Cats have risen from the dead this season, displaying an unbreakable spirit that all teams strive for. The only side to make Galway look fallible, they are backboned by strong leaders down the spine of their side and have made themselves very hard to beat despite obvious limitations in attack.

Flaws: A lack of scoring power up front is hurting their charge while there is an over-reliance on TJ Reid. If the Ballyhale Shamrocks sharpshooter is held - as he was against Dublin and in Salthill against Galway - they look vulnerable, while a seven-day turnaround against Limerick is very challenging. Impact of Richie Hogan and Colin Fennelly crucial to their cause.

Key man: TJ Reid. Kilkenny's rock. His ability to lead from the front and win dirty ball is second to none. Accuracy from play and placed balls is top drawer and Brian Cody needs him always at his best.

Forecast: All-Ireland finalists after overcoming Limerick and Cork.

3 CORK

What makes them tick: Being able to dictate affairs and create space for Patrick Horgan and Seamus Harnedy to operate in. Blessed with an abundance of ball players all over the pitch, the Rebels are difficult to stop when they build up a head of steam.

Flaws: Even in their successful five-match Munster SHC campaign, they conceded an average of 25.5 points and there are still serious question marks over Damien Cahalane at full-back while the No 6 shirt has been regularly rotated. That's hardly the solidity of potential All-Ireland champions. Playing with brain rather than brawn, they may be physically bullied if they face the Cats.

Key man: Seamus Harnedy. The Cork skipper has the style, but more importantly he has the substance. Invariably, it is the St Ita's attacker who lifts them out of a hole when the need is greatest. Combine that with his 4.6 point average per game in this year's provincial campaign and he is Cork's heartbeat.

Forecast: Likely to be skinned by a physically-superior Kilkenny side in the semi-finals.

4 LIMERICK

What makes them tick: Bursting with All-Ireland U-21 winners from 2015 and '17, Limerick may well have the best squad depth of any team that's left. With their high-energy style and a possession-based approach based on avoiding long ball and playing the ball through the lines, work-rate can't drop or dip below a certain level or they may struggle as they did against Clare in their final group game.

Flaws: They may have a formidable trio in front of them in Diarmuid Byrnes, Declan Hannon and Dan Morrissey, but there are still worries over their full-back line and their ability to cope with powerful forwards. John Conlon went to town on them in Ennis and while they have plenty of mobility in the sector and try to play from the front, they may lack the cutting edge when taken on in the skies.

Key man: Kyle Hayes. The modern-day centre-forward who drifts out the pitch in search of possession and drags the centre-back out of his comfort zone. It seems mad to say it but at just 20, the Kildimo/Pallaskenry forward has become indispensable for John Kiely's Treaty side with his ball-carrying ability and eye for a score crucial to their cause.

Forecast: Beaten All-Ireland quarter-finalists against Kilkenny.

5 CLARE

What makes them tick: When Clare are in full flow, they are a joy to watch. With the pace and energy of the likes of Colm Galvin, Tony Kelly and Podge Collins - as well as their raiding half-backs - they have the ability to score from distance while also cutting teams open and creating goal chances. When they are on their 'A' game, they're a difficult machine to stop.

Flaws: After holding a commanding position, they inexcusably collapsed against Cork in the Munster final when their defensive frailties reared their ugly head again. Gerry O'Connor and Donal Moloney's charges play too sporadically, so it's difficult to tell which Banner side will turn up. 2013 All-Ireland final replay hero Shane O'Donnell also seems to have forgotten what it's like to attempt a score for himself and is too selfless if anything.

Key man: John Conlon. The Clonlara powerhouse has been a one-man wrecking ball this year and his switch to the full-forward line has given them a focal point on the edge of the square (averaged 4.4 points from play in Munster), but they need others around him to share the scoring load.

Forecast: Beaten All-Ireland semi-finalists against Galway.

6 WEXFORD

What makes them tick: When Wexford have everyone attacking in waves, they can totally overpower opposition with Paudie Foley and Diarmuid O'Keeffe driving forward from defence. That requires high energy and if they are off point in the slightest, things break down.

Flaws: They may lack a killer instinct in attack. They had chances to kill off Kilkenny, but Davy Fitzgerald's side didn't take them and ended up missing out on the Leinster final, although tired legs were definitely a major factor. Playing with five forwards as Shaun Murphy adopts the sweeper role, it remains to be seen if they can take a scalp in a big knockout game.

Key man: Rory O'Connor. In his first full season with the seniors, the St Martin's attacker has provided the x-factor the Model men needed in attack. With an ability to put over points from all angles and pierce holes in opposition defences, O'Connor needs to put his best foot forward if they wish to break the glass ceiling.

Forecast: Defeat to his native Clare may end Davy's days in Wexford.

All-Ireland Odds

Galway 10/11

Cork 10/3

Clare 7/1

Limerick 15/2

Kilkenny 8/1

Wexford 28/1

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