Thursday 23 November 2017

The final four: What challenges do the All Ireland hurling semi-finalists face?

Can Waterford catch the Cats or will it be a return to business as usual for Kilkenny? And which way is the balance swinging between Galway and Tipperary?

Kilkenny manager Brian Cody. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Kilkenny manager Brian Cody. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Derek McGrath. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Tipperary manager Michael Ryan. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Galway manager Micheál Donoghue. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

It's difficult to know which of the four managers in the All-Ireland hurling semi-finals has the most to occupy them this week as each is facing tests unique to his squad.

For Brian Cody, it's a question of how Waterford succeeded for so long last Sunday in doing to Kilkenny what Kilkenny regularly do to others, forcing them into uncharacteristic errors.

Derek McGrath's challenge with Waterford is to further tweak an approach that came so close to delivering a massive prize.

Micheál Donoghue has to figure a way of stopping Séamus Callanan threatening Galway's ambitions, while Michael Ryan will have concerns that Tipperary have yet to face a really tough Championship test.

Plus, there's also the five-week wait for the semi-final, a gap that has proved too wide for the last four Munster winners.

Cody: Back to basics

First Cathal Mannion, then Austin Gleeson. Mannion's 0-5 from play for Galway in the Leinster final was of no great consequence in an overall context because of Kilkenny's second-half dominance but, nonetheless, Cody would have expected his defenders to figure out how one man was enjoying so much freedom.

They faced - and failed - a similar test last Sunday as Gleeson also took them for 0-5 and came within a Hawk-Eye call of making it 0-6. All of his points made for unpleasant viewing for Kilkenny.

Smarter to the break for his first and third points; higher in the catch from a puck-out for his second; quick feet past three opponents secured his fourth; unmarked for his fifth.

Read more: Tipp seeking to solve mystery of five-week semi-final wait

Gleeson's third point arose from a Waterford free out when Walter Walsh was penalised for over-carrying after being surrounded by three opponents. Where were Walsh's support troops? The Nowlan Park walls hold the confessional details.

Concentration on Gleeson's performance will have shown Kilkenny how they weren't quite up to the high mark they always set for themselves.

Even allowing for Gleeson's remarkable array of talents, it was surprising to see him afforded so many opportunities. He can expect a blank-and-amber cordon to be erected around whatever avenue he wanders into on Saturday. And Pauric Mahony will be stopped for questioning more often too.

The pair contributed 0-19 (0-9 from play) of Waterford's 0-24 total. Their return from play and the reason for the frees (Mahony pointed nine) will have been high on the Kilkenny discussion board this week.

McGrath: Change of menu?

In 1987, the record-breaking Kerry football team, that had won eight of the previous 11 All-Ireland titles, drew with Cork in the Munster final.

Having spent a week listening to the mantra 'Kerry don't lose replays', Cork travelled to Killarney and won by five points. It was another 10 years before Kerry won their next All-Ireland title.

Nobody is suggesting that Kilkenny are heading for a decade in the doldrums but, as Kerry discovered, times can change most unexpectedly.

McGrath and his squad will have heard a similar refrain about Kilkenny 'not losing replays', as if it's some sort of dark hoodoo that descends on opposition second time around.

Read more: Replay record guarantees nothing for Cats - Fogarty

It's not like that, of course. Kilkenny have won four replays since 2004 but they lost one too - against Dublin in 2013. The most interesting thing about replays is the reaction of the teams to what happened in the first game.

If Waterford could change anything about last Sunday, it would focus mainly on the closing minutes when, with a little more composure, they could have put the game beyond Kilkenny's reach.

They shot four wides and dropped one effort short into Eoin Murphy's hand, while Kilkenny defenders were able to clear unmarked on a few occasions.

That was in contrast to most of the game when Waterford brought poise and precision to a structure more attack-minded than in previous times.

McGrath's big challenge now is to change the menu again, rather than present a re-heated version of last Sunday.

Ryan: Where's the catch?

Is it all too good to be true? With the exception of when 'Bubbles' O'Dwyer was sent off against Limerick, the Tipperary manager has had few moments of worry so far this summer.

Cork were dismissed with a matter-of-fact performance; Limerick were beaten more easily than a two-point winning margin suggests, while Waterford imploded in the Munster final.

It leaves Tipperary heading into the semi-final without being stretched and, as they discovered against Galway last year, that's not the best preparation.

Read More: Waterford trapped in goal drought as Kilkenny's flow drops too

Still, there are subtle changes for the better in Tipperary this year. Ronan Maher has secured the No 6 zone since switching from the right wing, where Seamus Kennedy has slotted in comfortably; Michael Breen is thriving at midfield and John McGrath is an exciting addition in attack. It has resulted in an improvement in defence-midfield-attack, which is quite a boost for Ryan.

However, he is now heading for his first really big test. Defeat in Munster would have allowed for a second chance, unlike the net-free action on the Croke Park tightrope.

Ryan is in excellent standing with the Tipperary supporters now but a second successive semi-final defeat by Galway would change the relationship very quickly.

Donoghue: The Callanan file

Never mind the route, check the destination.

Returning Galway to Croke Park in August was the first big challenge for Donoghue, which has been duly achieved.

However, having beaten Tipperary last year, the bar is rising and Donoghue knows that there will be no contentment in Galway hurling until the All-Ireland is won.

Read more: 'One minute we're heroes, then we're not' - Donnellan

A big task facing him is how to counteract Callanan, who almost single-handedly beat Galway last year. He scored 3-9 (3-4 from play) and only deliberate fouls prevented him from poaching at least two more goals.

In 2014, Callanan scored 3-8 (3-1 from play) against Galway in the All-Ireland qualifiers. It brings his total to 6-5 in two games over 13 months, surely enough to prompt Donoghue to hold a series of Callanan think-ins with his co-strategists. Daithi Burke was probably called in for instructions.

Irish Independent

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