Shane Stapleton previews the weekend's hurling action, with the All-Ireland SHC entering the semi-final stage.
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The question marks are everywhere.
How will Limerick absorb the losses of Sean Finn and Declan Hannon, in a year where Cian Lynch has been riddled with injuries?
Galway have played and won more games than the Treaty this championship, beaten a Tipp team that Limerick could not, but do they have enough to eclipse their rivals for the first time since 2005?
Clare, once more, have issues at full-back and centre-back which bring Brian Lohan’s selection policy into focus again, with any solution offered this weekend subject to damnation if it goes wrong.
Derek Lyng is the sole manager of the four who has never stood on the sideline in a game of this magnitude, and it is 25 years since anyone other than Brian Cody steered Kilkenny to an All-Ireland final.
Four into two won’t go, and by the end of the weekend two counties will have trudged away from Croke Park bitterly disappointed.
Anything can happen, as we saw with Monaghan’s penalty-shootout win over Armagh, and it would not be beyond the realms of possibility for that to happen on Saturday or Sunday.
Of course, goals win games, and it’s something that Clare have really struggled with against Kilkenny in the past five championship meetings across 21 years.
The Cats are 8-2 ahead in terms of green flags, and it was failing to find the net that contributed to The Banner’s meltdown last year.
David Fitzgerald blitzed through the Cats’ defence in the first half but his handpass didn’t connect directly with Aron Shanagher, so a gilt-edged chance was lost.
Had Lohan’s men converted there, or had they the composure to resist shooting from distance so often with little success, they may have pushed a lot closer. As it was, they lost their heads, hit high ball on top of small men, and left their inside back-line to the wolves.
By that, we are talking about TJ Reid and Eoin Cody, whose ability to pick apples will be exhibited this weekend against a Clare team that has been without hightower Conor Cleary.
Wally Walsh is another fine option inside if aerial bombardment is Lyng’s weapon of choice, and in truth any configuration of Banner defenders will be in survival mode. Even at full strength last year, the high ball upset them.
The Banner hit five goals against Dublin but Kilkenny to find the net first at 19/20 makes more sense given the question marks over their rivals’ defence.
Lohan was a pillar of that zone when last his county beat The Cats in championship hurling in 1997, and their record of winning just two of their last ten All-Ireland semi-finals suggests there are psychological hang-ups when the heat is turned up.
They may have won an All-Ireland final ten years ago — when it turned out that they did not change the game of hurling — but traditionally they come up short on the big occasions. Of the 30 Munster finals the Banner have contested, they have won just six, and their last six since 1998 have all ended in misery.
Getting comfortable with discomfort is their challenge, and showing emotional composure against the four-in-a-row Leinster champions is challenge number one. To get a foothold against a county that has lost just two of their last ten final-four bouts.
Kilkenny to win by 1-3 points is 4/1 and feels like the smart bet here, but Tony Kelly will be desperate for revenge against man-marker Mikey Butler and The Cats for how last season’s clash went.
Ten years on from winning Hurler of the Year, the Ballyea man is in hot form after a hat-trick against Dublin, and this is a stage befitting of his talents. He must produce.
Henry Shefflin won his 10 All-Irelands playing for a Kilkenny team that famously won their own ball, those individual battles, and ran up some eye-watering tallies.
Leaving aside the wins over Antrim and Westmeath, his Galway team has been scoring rather modestly, but the manner of their win over Tipperary will please the manager.
They turned it into a war against an erstwhile free-scoring Premier, and got their biggest win of Shefflin’s tenure when returning their lowest scoreline (1-20) of the season.
Cathal Mannion was unconvincing as a sweeper in the Leinster final loss to Kilkenny but hurt Tipperary throughout the All-Ireland quarter-final win.
In last year’s semi-final against Limerick, the Ahascragh-Fohenagh man was deployed in a deep role designed to cut out deliveries to the inside line where Aaron Gillane’s greasy mitts could profit.
Very quickly, Shefflin realised the folly of this approach as the Treaty worked the ball around outnumbered Galway men in the middle zone and still managed to find their inside man. It was only once Mannion was pushed back up that the Tribe got a foothold.
That may well inform their approach against Limerick this time around. The green machine are missing important cogs but their winning mentality in tight situations continues to see them unbeaten in knockout hurling since 2019.
Kyle Hayes has been named at six and Gearoid Hegarty rezoned to seven in what looks a colossal half-back unit for Limerick, while an off-colour Lynch returns at centre-forward. Should these switches click, then there will be only one winner.
John Kiely’s side are chasing an All-Ireland four-in-a-row but to do so without men who act as security blankets in different sectors of the field has been hugely impressive. In many ways, it makes their journey all the more interesting.
Gone are the days of battering teams by double-digit scores where the ball is worked around the pitch against a befuddled opposition. Now, every game is a war because the terms of engagement are pretty much mano-a-mano.
Will Daithi Burke reprise his tango with Gillane, or is Padraic Mannion again set for a full-back line marking job? Getting the match-ups spot on can so often be the winning and losing of games, which will be in evidence this weekend.
It is 42 years since anything more than one score separated these teams so Galway +4 at 5/6 has a certain appeal.
With seasons on the line, anything can happen this weekend.