Shane Stapleton previews this weekend's GAA action as Kilkenny face Limerick on the All-Ireland hurling final.
The pressure is on to secure legacies at Croke Park this Sunday.
Limerick are aiming to win a first-ever three in a row of All-Ireland titles, matching the achievements of the traditional trio of Kilkenny, Tipperary and Cork.
Win, and their record of four Liam MacCarthy Cup success in five years puts them alongside The Cats’ achievements from 2006 to 2009. That can’t be questioned.
For Brian Cody, he needs this title to dispel the notion that he is yesterday’s man. Winning 11 All-Ireland titles between his appointment in late 1998 and the end of the 2015 season was sensational, but we’re at that stage of ‘what have you done for me lately?’.
After winning All-Irelands in 2003, 2005 and 2008 with Tyrone, Mickey Harte remained at the helm until the end of the 2020 season. To some, he outstayed his welcome, and even returning the team to an All-Ireland final in 2018 couldn’t prevent a certain denting of his legacy.
That is the unrelenting nature of high-level sport. Just as Harte saw his former players retire and enter the media arena wherein several suggested his time was up, myriad former Kilkenny players have done the same over the past three to four years.
They have seen their county hammered in two All-Ireland finals — 2016 and 2019 — and were particularly galled during the first when full-back Joey Holden was left exposed all game against Seamus Callanan, with disastrous results.
The red card to Richie Hogan — which many suggested was unjustified, despite it being a clear red — provided other ex-players with a get-out clause in 2019. Easier to go after the referee than to chip away at the legend once more — an understandable approach. The semi-final losses of the past two campaigns also drew much comment.
As the 2022 season progressed, Cody’s team began to take shape. They won easy games against Laois, Westmeath and Dublin, took the lessons from defeats to Wexford and Galway, and have hit top gear since against the Tribe and Clare. It’s all sunshine and gumdrops in the Marble County this week.
Should Kilkenny come out on top after Sunday’s war with Limerick, never again will the man in charge be questioned. Not only will it mean a return of the Liam MacCarthy Cup for the first time in seven years, but it will also end comparisons between this Limerick team and The Cats of 2006-09. A win for the current players, and for those who played for Cody in the dominant years.
Cian Lynch has missed a lot of game-time this year and, after returning from the bench against Galway, has hurt his ankle in the lead-up to the final. Whether the Patrickswell genius features or not, it must be remembered that John Kiely’s side have made it this far without him.
Waterford were considered the number-two seed when the sides met in Munster, and yet the Treaty prevailed despite the absences of Kyle Hayes, Seamus Flanagan and Peter Casey, with Lynch off injured early on.
‘Next man up’ is the mantra of top teams, and that’s what they’ve done as they continued their unbeaten run in the championship, but their performances haven’t been quite as comprehensive this year.
Lynch and Casey were their two sharpest attacking implements last season — most specifically in the final against Cork — and they have largely operated without them. Last season, they won each championship game by an average of ten points, a figure that has dropped to 4.33 this term.
All of which gives Kilkenny encouragement. The Cats ripped Clare apart in the All-Ireland semi-final and have conceded just one goal in their last four games. With Aaron Gillane closest to Eoin Murphy’s goal, and the Limerick pinpoint deliveries to contend with, that record will be under threat.
Should Gearoid Hegarty, Hayes and Tom Morrissey get opportunities to run towards the square, it spells trouble for the Leinster champions. The Banner were spooked early on and resorted to hitting high ball onto small men, shooting from 100 yards, and picking poor defensive match-ups.
Limerick may not be cruising at top speed just now, but they are tactically astute and embrace marginal gains. They won’t leave a defender one-v-one on TJ Reid close to goal, will set up well on puckouts, won’t miss easy frees, and won’t make a hero out of Richie Reid if he sits back on the ‘D’. Just ask Galway’s Cathal Mannion, who was made redundant when sweeping in the semi-final.
Clare missed 35 scoring chances in their defeat, which suggests that Kilkenny will offer up opportunities. Whether Limerick take enough of them is another question. What Kiely will hope is that his team has learned from defeats to the Cats in 2017 and 2019.
Yes, they edged out their rivals in the 2018 game but there were similarities in the two losses either side of it: a lack of composure. Kilkenny’s intensity forced them into panicking — not unlike what happened to Clare in the semi-final.
A lot of water has passed under the bridge since 2019, though. Physically, Limerick are markedly bigger and no longer panic to the point of abandoning their game plan. When Galway came at them late on, twice their disciplined tackling forced Mannion and Cianan Fahy into taking too many steps. In the rarefied air, no side thinks more clearly.
Kilkenny need a repeat to 2019. Adrian Mullen must build on his 0-25, Eoin Cody needs a huge day, Huw Lawlor and Richie Reid need to make statements, and there’s a feeling that a couple of goals will also be required. TJ Reid may have scored just 0-3 from play in five championship outings against the Treaty, but his form from the semi-final suggests he could unleash hell on Sunday.
An unbeaten Limerick team not quite at 100% and a Kilkenny team feeling its way towards their best performances at the business end of the season. Expect a frenzy, plenty of cards, quarts of blood, and the Treaty to eke their way through.
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