Shane Stapleton: All-Ireland hurling semi-final preview
Shane Stapleton previews this weekend's GAA action as Limerick face Galway and Clare take on Kilkenny.
The middle eight at Croke Park this weekend will be more packed than the security gates at Dublin Airport.
Bad-tempered, foul-mouthed men looking to get places. It will be the wrong side of intense, though hopefully the right side of the nasty scenes witnessed last weekend between Armagh and Galway.
There’s an old saying that war is old men sending young men to die, and truly there is that feeling of “going over the top” when your season is on the line on the biggest stage.
Limerick are chasing a fourth All-Ireland title in five seasons, and in their way stands a group of Galway players that need to become men on Sunday.
The truth of it is that very few believe in Henry Shefflin’s side. The Tribe were routed by a workmanlike Kilkenny side in the Leinster final, with one too many getting fits of shyness with the game there for the taking.
Insofar as you could say that they won their All-Ireland quarter-final, it is just as true to say that Cork threw it away. The Rebels created 49 chances compared with the Tribe’s 33, somehow losing by a point.
So while there is a feeling that Galway are on death row with Limerick ready to carry out the executioner’s role, there’s always the chance of a shock. The Cats ambushed John Kiely’s charges in 2019; anything is possible, even if nothing of the sort seems especially likely.
After their recent Munster final success, a photo emerged of a number of the Limerick players celebrating topless. They looked like a group of men who might have defended Sparta in another era — their muscles seemed to have muscles.
Galway’s group are more callow and will be playing catch-up in the physical stakes over the coming seasons. Yet if they want a cause, they can draw on the words of opposition manager John Kiely who opined of the Tribe after a league game in 2021 that “there were clear examples of simulation there today — a couple were very embarrassing”. He quickly retracted the comments, but why wouldn’t Shefflin colour his players’ minds with this accusation?
“They think ye are a bunch of divers, that ye are soft, that ye are not men” — not Shefflin’s words, of course, but the type of road he could go down.
And it's all about a cause in this game. Management teams and psychologists regularly ask players “what's your why?”. Figure it out, channel it into a performance, and hope it's enough.
Without question, Limerick are huge favourites, and their progression to this stage despite the prolonged injury absence of Hurler of the Year Cian Lynch explains why. They’re bigger than you, stronger than you, as fast as you, and have repped their Moneyball gameplan more.
The problem for Galway is that they no longer have the specimens who can keep with the green animal for 70-plus minutes. Joe Canning has retired, Johnny Glynn is no longer an option, and other erstwhile key men are sliding past their peak.
With one championship win at Croke Park since winning the All-Ireland in 2017, it feels like a moment of transition.
That’s something that Brian Cody has been attempting to bring Kilkenny through for a number of years since they last eked out an All-Ireland title in 2015. It is commonly considered his best achievement due to the more limited level of talent in that team compared with what went before.
These days, they have young talents in Eoin Cody and Adrian Mullen, but the cupboard is not overflowing with magicians beyond that. More water-carriers than players who can turn it into wine.
Still, they have TJ Reid. He’ll soon be 35, but he’s still TJ Reid. Whenever this season ends, that may coincide with the Ballyhale Shamrocks star hanging up his wrists. Since winning Hurler of the Year when leading to Kilkenny to their most recent All-Ireland success seven seasons ago, The Cats have been back to two finals — losing by a combined 23 points.
The last two seasons, they have been beaten in All-Ireland semi-finals — firstly collapsing against Waterford, and latterly coming back brilliantly in normal time before Cork won the day.
Reid may not dominate every minute of this game but his hurling brain and skill means he needs just a few moments to contribute decisively.
Tony Kelly is 28 years of age, at the peak of his powers, and finally has a supporting cast to put Clare in the conversation for glory.
Three times this year they have been level with Limerick after normal time, and will have been disappointed to fall away in extra time of the Munster final. Win this and they will hope that attempt four against the Treaty (most likely!) goes their way.
You have to go back to 2006 for the most recent meeting of Clare v Kilkenny, so this rivalry has been dormant for a long time. There is no beef of note between the Cats and the Banner, but it won’t be long starting.
If it’s an open game, the feeling is that Clare’s flying columns of Kelly, Shane O’Donnell, David Fitzgerald, and young tyros such as Shane Meehan and Mark Rodgers can give them an edge.
Should it become a dogged affair, the advantage may tip towards Kilkenny. Reid will pop frees over all day if we hear lots of the whistle, and the placed balls are an area of concern just now for manager Brian Lohan.
No matter what, skin and hair will be flying.
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