today's hurling championship previewDamian Lawlor
Kilkenny v Limerick
Croke Park, 3.30
Limerick are back at the same stage they were last year but there are subtle differences this time around.
For a start, they are better equipped because, crucially, there is nothing like the hype that surrounded the team 12 months ago, even if Limerick will bring their usual large haul of supporters with them.
They trained last Friday week and again on Bank Holiday Monday afternoon last and it was there that skipper Donal O'Grady proved his fitness - meaning that despite scoring 0-3 against Wexford, Thomas Ryan loses his place for today's game. It poses a knock-on question, however: where will O'Grady line out? Declan Hannon is playing his best hurling at centre-forward. It would be a brave man who would move him away, especially when O'Grady's mental strength and talent allow him to slot into a number of positions.
To get over today's massive hurdle, Limerick will need to replicate what they did in the Wexford game and attack Kilkenny from the start. Show no fear.
Limerick undoubtedly have enough pace and energy in their ranks to win but there are just too many variables that we can't bank upon. Will they be consistent? Will they put away the chances they create?
There are a couple of guys to look out for on each side. Richie Hogan has been bossing it for Kilkenny all year long, ably assisted by TJ Reid whose career has reached another level.
David Breen, meanwhile, has put decent games back to back and it would appear he is playing with more confidence. Last year they had players who looked like they were overcome with nerves but Breen was one of the few to show anything up front against Clare and that cut and dash will be essential again this afternoon.
Limerick like to mix their game up and the direct style - they played 21 balls on the ground in the quarter-final - could put the Kilkenny defence under serious pressure.
For unsung heroes, too, it's a massive day. James Ryan gets through an amount of work; he had 17 possessions against Wexford alone, completed nine passes and picked off two scores as well.
But he'll find that the likes of Eoin Larkin, one of the hardest workers in the game, will drift out from the inside forward line in an attempt to win turnover ball and clog space for the opposition. Larkin has won everything that can be won but still plays with the hunger of a rookie.
In the air it will be an intriguing contest. Limerick have the physical presence and the power to win their own ball but if they go down that route when launching their own attacks it could suit Jackie Tyrrell and JJ Delaney.
With Kilkenny you nearly always know what you get. They are in great shape again, their injury woes have dried up and they have a bench bursting with medals and quality. Yes, they remain very dependent on Richie Hogan and TJ Reid (who has scored 3-35 in this year's championship) but so far it's been more than enough to see them into the last four.
Overall, a hunger and urgency presides - that wasn't there last year. Michael Fennelly and Richie Power are both fit and have a few weeks of full training behind them. Colin Fennelly started the year in blazing form, slumped a little as the league progressed, but he has regained his intensity of March and has 2-12 from play this summer so far.
They are 4/9 favourites to win today and are a safer bet. You just know they will still be there fighting at the end. They are in sixth gear right now, as TJ Reid says, and they believe that if they play to the levels they are capable of, few can match them. The only hope Limerick have is to hound them, win back ball and drive at them. Easier said than done.
Kilkenny: D Herity; P Murphy, JJ Delaney, J Tyrrell; J Holden, B Hogan, C Buckley; R Hogan, C Fogarty; P Walsh, M Fennelly, TJ Reid; C Fennelly, M Kelly, E Larkin.
Limerick: N Quaid; T Condon, R McCarthy, S Hickey; P O'Brien, W McNamara, G O'Mahony; J Ryan, P Browne; D Breen, D O'Grady, D Hannon; S Dowling, K Downes, G Mulcahy.
Sunday Indo Sport