Saturday 16 December 2017

Men in green look to have fewer questions to answer

Cork's rather easy victory over Clare is a form line that can't be trusted, says Jamesie O'Connor

‘There may be pressure on Limerick, but I think their time has come’
‘There may be pressure on Limerick, but I think their time has come’

Jamesie O'Connor

If there was an air of destiny about Dublin's breakthrough win last weekend, the long-suffering Limerick hurling public have every right to feel that their day in the sun will surely come around this afternoon.

Seventeen years have passed since Ciarán Carey's epic last-gasp winner knocked Clare out of the championship on their way to Limerick's last Munster title. That's a long time to wait and during that period, the run to the 2007 All-Ireland final apart, glory days at senior level have been few and far between.

However, while history and tradition sides with the Rebels, the impressive sacking of Tipperary in the semi-final, home advantage for today's game, following Cork's victory over Clare, and even the minors dethroning of the All-Ireland champions to book their place on the undercard, all indicate that the stars in 2013 might just be aligned in Limerick's favour.

It's a big day too for the Munster Council and their blue-riband fixture. There have been a couple of damp squibs in recent years, and the paltry attendances of the last two years in particular have robbed what should be one of the highlights of the hurling calendar of some of its glamour.

Today's novel pairing negates that as an issue, and the provincial body must be thrilled because an expectant Limerick public means there should be a full house. Conceding home advantage shouldn't bother Cork unduly, but a frenzied local crowd in the Gaelic Grounds does make for a hostile environment and if they get behind the team, as they did against Tipperary, the crowd could be worth a point or two.

With their place in the final secured a fortnight before Cork played Clare, the Limerick players will have taken a spin into their home patch three weeks ago to take a closer look at their opponents.

While Cork were impressive winners, with the game over early in the second half, Clare played so poorly and made so many mistakes, putting a precise valuation on that performance and how good Cork really are isn't that straightforward an exercise.

The Cork full-back line were certainly at sixes and sevens in the opening 20 minutes, something that won't have been lost on John Allen, but Clare's failure to capitalise on the goal chances that presented themselves ultimately let them off the hook.

Limerick will look to go after that defensive uncertainty and I think they'll get goals today. Against Tipperary, especially early on, they withdrew full-forward Declan Hannon out the field in a bid to isolate Graeme Mulcahy and Seánie Tobin in their inside line. With the pace this duo has, that's going to create problems, and if they're given the same space and opportunities Clare had, they're unlikely to be as forgiving.

Having been kept scoreless by the outstanding Mickey Cahill last time out, Mulcahy in particular will be bursting to perform. He's a class player and more than any other Limerick forward has the attributes required to really damage Cork this afternoon.

Outside of those initial issues in their full-back line, Cork won the tactical battle with Clare hands down. They got most of their match-ups spot on, but having lost to Clare twice in the league, both from winning positions, the knowledge of what needed to be done and who in particular needed to be stopped was very clear in Jimmy Barry-Murphy's mind.

To that effect, for example, Brian Murphy might have appeared a strange choice at centre-back, but he did an extremely effective man-marking job on Tony Kelly, and with his influence nullified, and John Conlan injured, Tom Kenny and William Egan in the Cork half-back line effectively shut Clare down in the second half. At the other end, having been obliterated on their own puck-out by the Clare half-backs during the league, that deficiency had also been addressed and the work rate and industry of the Cork half-forwards never allowed Clare to get on the front foot.

Obviously, with Limerick campaigning in Division 1B, the Cork backroom team don't have the same raw intelligence when it comes to dismantling today's opponents. Tipperary created enough goal chances five weeks ago, though, for Cork to feel that the Limerick full-back line, too, can be exposed. Both Luke O'Farrell and Patrick Horgan were razor-sharp in the Clare match, and it's in Cork's interests to get those guys on the ball as often as possible. Pa Cronin's return also offers them an aerial threat on the edge of the square, should they choose to site him there at some stage. Goals may ultimately determine today's outcome, so whichever side is more successful at exposing the chinks in the other's full-back line will probably win the match.

With the experience and astuteness JBM and the Cork backroom team bring, their forwards starting to find form and Jamie Coughlan to bring off the bench, Cork will travel with the belief they can win. I remain to be convinced that they will. Defensively, they look short on cover, and while Lorcan McLoughlin's return frees up Christopher Joyce's return to the half-back line, Brian Murphy's injury is a serious blow, especially in a team light on Munster final experience. Paudie O'Sullivan is another big loss, and I think a lot of people may have overestimated how good Cork really are based on the Clare game.

Cork bossed Clare in a manner they simply won't be able to repeat this afternoon. Limerick are a far more physically imposing and seasoned side. Watching them warm up prior to the Tipperary match, you could see the intensity and ferocity they were going to bring. They carried that same aggression into the tackle once the ball was thrown in, and eventually that physicality wore Tipp's resistance down.

In particular, two memorable hits put in by Declan Hannon and Tom Condon in the second half that drove Tipp players out over the line not only galvanised their own side but also electrified the home support. Limerick will feel they have the edge physically on Cork, and the same aggression, properly channelled over 70 minutes, will not only test Cork's conditioning, but also their stomach for the battle.

The other key advantage Limerick appear to have is their strength in depth off the bench. In Kevin Downes, Shane Dowling, Niall Moran and Conor Alliss, John Allen has game-changers he can call on, and that could be decisive as players tire in the second half. I thought he might have started Downes or Dowling, or considered relocating Hannon, because as currently constituted, the Limerick half-forward line looks heavy on workers but light on shooters. Instead, he has kept them in reserve and, as against Tipp, Limerick will in all likelihood finish the game with a more potent-looking attack than the one that started.

There may be pressure on Limerick to deliver, especially playing at home, but like Dublin last weekend, I think their time has come, and they'll relish it.

These players have paid their dues. They're hungry, have the right blend of youth and experience, and to go from three clear at half-time to four behind against Tipperary heading into the last 20 minutes, and still win the match, answered any questions there might have been about their steel and resolve.

Assuming their full-back line weather whatever storm Cork throw at them, I think they'll deliver as Dublin did last Sunday, and end that 17-year wait.

Irish Independent

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