To me, the first All-Ireland semi-final hinges on the approach taken by Clare. We know Kilkenny will set up in a fairly orthodox way, but what will Brian Lohan do? Going man to man is in his DNA but, if he opts for that on Saturday, it could play into Kilkenny’s hands.
I’m looking forward to an old-fashioned battle, and with the way Clare play, Kilkenny will have to go into the trenches with them. Clare like playing with a two-man inside line, and I’d expect Ian Galvin and Peter Duggan to be there on Saturday, with Ryan Taylor and Tony Kelly floating with freedom.
A tactic that worked well for Clare this year is to drop back and force teams to go short, and Lohan will believe Kilkenny are not comfortable carrying the ball out. If Kilkenny do it, then they have to be brave, patient and avoid panicking, working it out a bit before delivering accurate ball inside.
Some teams don’t necessarily target the square with high ball, but Wexford got a good return out of that the last day so it is something we should see from Kilkenny. Its success will depend on who gets the supply. Will it be TJ Reid and Eoin Cody inside? Maybe Walter Walsh? One thing is certain: Kilkenny need their forwards to deliver big performances.
Then there’s the defensive dilemma: how to stop Tony Kelly? Mikey Butler should get the job but while he’s supremely fit, the issue with Kelly is you likely need a second guy to finish it out. Coming into the 60th minute, he could come alive and in a tight match all it takes are two or three shots.
Limerick didn’t man-mark him, but Kilkenny will look at the quarter-final and see how close Wexford got to beating Clare and so much of that was due to curbing Kelly’s influence in the first 50 minutes.
Kilkenny need to play it smart, work the ball out and not be afraid of that approach – strange as it might seem. Long, deep balls will suit Clare, who have a couple of big units and are well able to compete in the air. If Kilkenny move Conor Cleary around off the edge of the square, it could be key as he’s a guy who can be got at.
My worry as a Kilkenny man? Clare have had a clear run at this. But the one thing we know about a Cody team is they’ll go to the bitter end, scrapping and fighting. I think Kilkenny might shade it. A lot of our players have played within themselves so far, but I think a big performance is coming and really needed.
As for Sunday’s semi-final, few will look past Limerick. But if you were to profile the physicality of both teams, it’s one area Galway can match the champions. But the issue? Limerick are also very mobile.
Cian Lynch and Peter Casey could be back but, even without them, they’re still formidable. Galway need a lot of things to go right and they can’t afford to be as loose as they were the last day.
The movement of their forwards also needs to be better. Brian Concannon or Evan Niland might be better options inside than Cianan Fahy. He didn’t get the timing of his runs right against Cork and the Rebels emerged with the vast majority of balls Galway struck into that zone.
On puck-outs, going short is risky for Galway, but Limerick will try to bait them into it. Limerick then set up their six and drift, corralling you into a channel where they get at you physically. Be it through arms, jostles, shoulders – all good tackling – they slow you down, and when they double you the arriving man is so effective at stripping the ball.
I think the best approach for Galway is to target someone around the ’45 to ’65 off puck-outs and get rid of it quickly, transferring it inside with precision. If Galway go long, they can look to Limerick’s round-robin clash with Tipperary for a lesson.
Tipperary went down on top of Dan Morrissey with most puck-outs, avoiding Declan Hannon and Diarmaid Byrnes. I’m not saying Morrissey is a weak link, but Tipperary got joy out of targeting his flank. Tipp also reduced Barry Nash as Limerick’s first receiver off puck-outs. If Nash gets it, he makes stuff happen, so it’s critical he’s not allowed to function as their quarterback – end of story.
Limerick will do what Limerick do: play their game, focus on turnovers, and look to wear Galway down. They have massive patience and belief in how they play, and if Shefflin’s side are to win they need to be ahead with 10 or 12 minutes to play.
Hurling can be a funny game, though. Something left-field could happen like a red card that upsets a team. We saw a more inexperienced Limerick get caught out in that 2019 semi-final, but this side looks a different animal. I expect them to accelerate in the last 10 minutes, open up a comfortable gap and prevail by six or seven points.