Today's football and hurling championship previews
Leinster SHC Final
Galway v KilkennY
Croke Park, 4.0
Since 2006 when they reclaimed the All-Ireland and initiated a period of iron rule, Kilkenny have made fast work of Leinster final opponents. Six provincial showpieces have brought trigger-happy margins of victory: 11 points, 15, 19, six, seven and 11. The single-digit exceptions were partly explained by Dublin's seven-man defence in 2009 and 17 Kilkenny wides against Galway a year later. Last year, they were back to winning in style. Following their summary dismissal of Dublin in Portlaoise two weeks ago, Kilkenny enter today's final as the warmest of favourites. If they win by ten points or more it will not startle anybody.
Brian Cody's gift is to transplant his own insatiable stomach for battle into his players whenever they take the field; that energy pitch should be unsustainable in men blessed with so much success. He has been fortunate to have a squad of outstanding stickmen and warriors but that will only take you so far. His own appetite, much as he passes it off, is astonishing. Hence there is no good time to 'catch' Kilkenny.
This obsessive winning mentality, the culture he has created, is demonstrated in acts of simple and honest graft. Can anyone say there is a set of forwards in hurling that work more demonically than Kilkenny's when they don't have the ball? And the old guard like JJ Delaney, missing today due to injury, and Henry Shefflin derive as much delight from hurling for Kilkenny now as they did when they first announced their entrance. It does, as Eddie Brennan has said, help when you're winning. But counties like Galway have not shown that competing means as much.
Galway have taken two bad beatings from Kilkenny already this year but they are not in a hopeless position. Low expectation levels will suit them and they'll know that there are positives to look back on: staying up in the league, overcoming a Dublin team that were a good bit better a year earlier, Joe Canning's return, the blooding of a lot of young players who won an All-Ireland under 21 title last year and a few off the successful minor side as well.
Not so convincing, unfortunately, is the defensive arrangement even if David Collins is back to add some vital experience. Seven goals conceded in their last two games is not a ringing endorsement given that Westmeath and Offaly were in opposition.
Injuries are troubling Kilkenny's preparations but made little difference against Dublin, then as now without Michael Fennelly and Michael Rice. Noel Hickey stands in for Delaney today, the same Hickey deemed finished in some minds after 2010. They have a bench well stocked to deal with any emergency. The threat to Kilkenny players lucky enough to start today's Leinster final isn't so much from Galway as from that same bench. There really is no time to rest on their laurels.
Galway: J Skehill; D Collins, K Hynes, F Moore; N Donoghue, T óg Regan, J Coen; I Tannian, A Smith; D Burke, N Burke, C Donnellan; C Cooney, J Canning, D Hayes.
Kilkenny: D Herity; P Murphy, N Hickey, J Tyrrell; T Walsh, B Hogan, R Doyle; C Buckley, P Hogan; H Shefflin, TJ Reid, E Larkin; C Fennelly, R Power, R Hogan.
Munster SFC Final
Clare v Cork
Gaelic Grounds, 2.0
In their win over Limerick, Clare enjoyed a rare moment to savour, their first championship success since 2008. Everywhere they toiled, the pickings had been lean. They haven't won a qualifier since 2006. Next season will see them embark on a fifth successive spring in Division 4.
The pressure on them to defeat Limerick didn't hinder their confidence throughout the first half; they buzzed about and drove at Limerick, scoring freely from play. Early in the second half they went 10 points up and followers will find it unsettling to think that Limerick made it all the way back to parity, then went one up, just by scoring points.
A worry is their tendency to fade in games, possibly a stamina deficiency, although Michael Cahill's training programme has got a very positive response from the players. They have tended to start matches smartly which is something they will dearly hope for today, given the stature of their opponents and the occasion, but there is that susceptibility as games wear on.
The Limerick game showed up weaknesses in defence and the full-back Shane McNeilis has been sacrificed for Barry Duggan. Shane Brennan is preferred to Martin McMahon, a sticky but diminutive defender. In recent challenges, the team has played well, earning wins over Galway and Offaly, but this is a massive test on every imaginable level.
In their favour, they play unburdened by external expectation, as the odds of 18/1 testify, and enjoy the best crop of forwards for some time. Gary Brennan is also one of the better midfielders playing today. It remains to be seen how they approach the match tactically but the word is that they will go man for man. Some will see that as high risk against a Cork team strong around the middle and full of running.
Cork have off-days and don't always make the most of possession. All of these variables need to be to Clare's advantage to make a game of it. It will be a pity if they don't but Cork could open up. Even if Cork are restrained, Clare will do well to keep it to seven or eight points.
Clare: Joe Hayes; K Hartnett, B Duggan, L Healy; E Coughlan, G Kelly, John Hayes; G Brennan, G Quinlan; S Brennan, S McGrath, A Clohessy; R Donnelly, D Tubridy, M O'Shea.
Cork: A Quirke; R Carey, M Shields, E Cadogan; P Kissane, G Canty, N O'Leary; A O'Connor, A Walsh; C Sheehan, P Kelly, P Kerrigan; C O'Neill, D O'Connor, N Murphy.
Ulster SHC Final
Antrim v Derry
Casement Park, 3.30
With an eight-goal milling from Limerick last weekend and reports of unsavoury rows on the bus home afterwards, Antrim hurling morale is on the floor. But duty calls. The players reassembled on Thursday night in preparation for an Ulster final that's now a remote satellite in the GAA galaxy.
The Oak Leaf County have been making some strides but the win over Down needs to be seen in the context of Down's dwindling fortunes. Antrim, seeking 11 on the trot, are good enough to end a dreadful year on a winning note.
Antrim: DD Quinn; James Campbell, N McGarry, A Graffan; M Herron, N McAuley, Johnny Campbell; B McAuley, S McNaughton; E McCloskey, C Carson, P Shiels; L Watson, N McManus, B McFall.
Sunday Indo Sport