Shane Stapleton previews the All Ireland SHC final with Limerick facing Kilkenny at Croke Park.
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Which narrative are you buying into: that Kilkenny are getting closer, or that Limerick are ready to power clear?
If last year’s final and the Treaty’s close-fought battles throughout much of this championship are anything to go by, not to mention the injury to Sean Finn, then the Cats are primed to maul their opponents.
Consider the other side of it though. Peter Casey and Cian Lynch didn’t tog out in the 2022 decider, the latter is finding form, Gearoid Hegarty seems to be timing his run perfectly for another terrific final display, and Aaron Gillane played that game with his right knee heavily bandaged.
The beauty of sport and the intermeshed chaos of 30 men going to war means we will never truly know the impact of any single factor, but it makes it all the more intriguing. Not to mention that any grain of rice can tip the scales, and we don’t know which might do so on Sunday.
John Kiely is aiming to win a 13th final from 13 when combining league, Munster and All-Ireland deciders. It’s an absurd record.
They have lost one knockout championship game since the 2017 season concluded (in 2019), and that came at the hands of Brian Cody at Nowlan Park in what was Kiely’s first season. Nobody could have predicted what would happen between then and now.
Kilkenny have now gone eight years without Liam MacCarthy wintering on Noreside, while Limerick won a first All-Ireland title in 45 years, and three more since.
What we have is not one but two four-in-a-rows at stake here. Should the Treaty climb the steps, they will have won four titles in a row. Within that, it would be a fourth final loss on the bounce for The Marble County.
As much as winning an All-Ireland is a huge driving factor this weekend for Derek Lyng’s side, the pain of another day playing bridesmaid could fuel them even more. The pills have become ever tougher to swallow.
Tipperary by nine points in 2016 and 14 three years later, and then the agonising two-point loss last season, there’s no doubting the yearning for glory among the Black and Amber hordes.
The lattermost was a titanic tussle, but in truth Kilkenny were playing catch-up for the majority of it. Other than the opening minute or so, and during the 48th minute when John Donnelly levelled the game at 2-19 to 1-22, The Cats were behind throughout.
After going five points clear a minute into injury time at the end of the game, Kiely ordered his troops to fall back and protect the goal, which they did.
That the remaining Kilkenny scores came from Tommy Walsh, Alan Murphy and David Blanchfield — two out of the three being defenders — speaks of a team that was reduced to shooting from distance.
Limerick having to scrap for every last ball at the very end, however, will prove that the reigning champions were on the ropes. Kilkenny will hope to rumble them once more.
Should TJ Reid prove to be the difference in this game, it may well bookend one of the great hurling careers of modern ages.
Christy Ring retired from inter-county action at the age of 43 prior to the 1964 championship, and attempting to compare the two — not to mention any other icons of the sport — would be folly.
Kilkenny’s four-time All-Ireland winner Christy Heffernan explained to me this week that “TJ Reid is the best player I have ever seen,” but dominating this game as he approaches his 36th birthday — during his first year of fatherhood, which can’t be easy — seems a long shot.
Limerick are the most physical team in the history of the game and their relentless pressure breaks most men in their prime. What Lyng will hope for is the usual brilliance with placed balls, and enough decisive moments from Reid to give his team a chance here.
Eoin Cody (4-21) is a Hurler of the Year prospect coming into the final and it is in this matchup that the loss of Finn could be felt by Limerick.
Martin Keoghan (5-9), who clearly was not 100 per cent match-fit for the semi-final win over Clare, has an eye for goal on the big days (10/1 first goalscorer). Adrian Mullen, meanwhile, made an exceptional contribution against the Banner despite only just returning from a broken thumb.
The Treaty by 1-3 points at 4/1 is the recommendation here. While The Cats will lay it all on the line and hope that Richie Hogan or Wally Walsh can drive them over the top, but we have seen the green machine win too many wars to turn our backs on them now.