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Shane Stapleton: All-Ireland SHC semi-finals preview

05 Jul | BY Shane Stapleton | MIN READ TIME |
Shane Stapleton: All-Ireland SHC semi-finals preview
Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Shane Stapleton looks ahead to this weekend's two clashes at Croke Park, as Kilkenny face Clare before Limerick take on Cork.

If Cork are going to catch Limerick, they will need a fast start.

Even then, there is no guarantee that the green giant will not weather the storm and coast through to another All-Ireland final.

John Kiely’s team have played 12 halves — not including extra time in 2018 — of hurling in semi-finals at Croke Park and won eight. Outside of the defeat to Kilkenny in 2019, their performances have always been enough to see them over the line.

They are the ultimate Croke Park team under Kiely, winning ten of 11 championship clashes there during his tenure, and with an average of six points to spare.

A mainstay during this successful run has been Aaron Gillane. The reigning Hurler of the Year has racked up 2-32 this summer, yet curiously just four scores have come from open play to go with 0-30 from frees.

He is evens to hit the net anytime during the game, and so often he has been a pain in the Rebels’ side — of course finding raising a green flag when these teams met in the 2021 All-Ireland final.

He has averaged 3.8 points from play per game across his 11 senior championship appearances at GAA HQ, and is likely to make an impression once more.

A man who plundered 2-2 that afternoon three years ago is Gearoid Hegarty. His occasional deployment in the full-forward line has confounded teams this season, with Clare particularly perturbed at the move in their Munster opener in Ennis.

At 8/1 for first goal, there is merit to backing the St Pat’s man. Even if he remains in the half-forward line, a potential size mismatch and his ability canter in on goal could set him up for glory.

Alan Connolly has been brilliant for Cork this year after finally getting a chance to show his class following a couple of injury-ravaged seasons. 

He has not found the target in his last two games, but illness interfered with his preparations for the meeting with Dublin and Eoghan O’Donnell.

Like “Hego”, he is 8/1 to raise the first green flag, but let us not ignore Shane Barrett at 16/1. The Blarney man has been sensational for the majority of this season, and his pacy runs against the experienced Declan Hannon could be key on Sunday.

Traditionally, the Rebels have been thought of as a fast team. Yet with Declan Dalton, Seamus Harnedy and 36-year-old Patrick Horgan up top — none of whom are fliers — they have gone a different route.

Pat Ryan could have gone for an army of speed merchants with Robbie O’Flynn, Jack O’Connor, Shane Kingston and Conor Lehane, but he has opted instead for a balance of ball winners and finishers.

Should Cork get down the stretch within striking distance of the champions, then unloading that explosive bench could help carry them over the line, as it did during their pulsating Munster meeting.

Cork +6 at 4/5 seems a decent bet. Should you fancy them to prevail in normal or extra time, you’re covered. The idea of them being blown out once more seems unlikely too.

Brian Lohan has a problem coming into the clash of his Clare troops against Kilkenny. He has assembled a brilliant group of players who fight with their hearts, but too often they come up short on the big days.

Since claiming the All-Ireland title under Davy Fitzgerald in 2013, Clare have played at Croke Park in the championship on three occasions and never left as victors.

They had a disastrous start to the 2018 semi-final against Galway when they fell 1-7 to 0-1 behind after 17 minutes, but then switching Colm Galvin to sweeper — where he mopped up aimless long ball after aimless long ball — turned the game, and saw The Banner force a replay after extra time.

These past two seasons, Kilkenny have foiled their rivals at this same stage of the championship. On each occasion, the brilliance of The Cats in the air set a platform for victory, and it may do so once more.

What do these three Croke Park outings have in common for Clare? On each occasion, they started disastrously, and you could argue their management got key decisions wrong.

Gerry O’Connor and Donal Moloney moved Galvin to sweeper six years ago, but evidently they should have started out with him there — albeit credit must be given for finding a solution.

These past two years, Lohan has made misjudgements. When John Conlon was forced out in 2022 due to injury, the man sent into the half-back line on Adrian Mullen had a very rough ride.

Last season, Seadna Morey was curiously thrust into the sweeper position while Conlon played a marking role, and again it did not work.

Will Lohan go mano a mano here? Given how well teams play around a “plus-one” these days, it is a risk to leave a spare man back because you can get less pressure on the ball upfront. But without it, Lohan knows his defence could fall foul of TJ Reid, Eoin Cody and Mullen when the inevitable aerial assault comes.

Derek Lyng will again trust Mikey Butler to tag Tony Kelly after limiting the Ballyea man’s inputs these past two seasons. Forewarned is forearmed, so what will Kelly do to ensure he wins this crucial battle?

He could take the O’Loughlin Gaels man to centre-forward, drag him out to midfield, or go even deeper to link play. A hybrid which involves sweeping up any long-ball breaks as Galvin did six years ago, but also with a licence to follow up play into the top half of the pitch.

Adam Hogan did really well against Eoin Cody in the Banner’s league final win this year, but you can expect a fired-up Ballyhale Shamrock to be in the mood for revenge.

At 6/1 to the first goal, he looks good value, while his side to lead at both half-time and full-time is 7/4.

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Shane Stapleton

Multimedia journalist who produces content on Gaelic games, regularly features on Irish TV and radio, and who has won two All-Ireland club hurling titles as a player.

Shane Stapleton

Multimedia journalist who produces content on Gaelic games, regularly features on Irish TV and radio, and who has won two All-Ireland club hurling titles as a player.