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Race for Liam: The four teams bidding for All-Ireland hurling glory

Kilkenny take on Clare on Saturday, while Limerick meet Galway on Sunday.

Shefflin, Kiely, Lohan and Cody are the managers chasing glory.
Shefflin, Kiely, Lohan and Cody are the managers chasing glory.
Image: INPHO

THE RACE COMES down to this four in the pursuit of the Liam MacCarthy Cup.

The reigning champions Limerick are chasing a fourth title in five seasons. Galway last won in 2017, Kilkenny’s most recent triumph was 2015 and Clare must go back to 2013 for their last success.

With the provincial action wrapped up and the All-Ireland quarter-finals taken care of, this is the quartet heading to Croke Park for hurling semi-final weekend.

How are they shaping up?

Kilkenny

Just the one All-Ireland final appearance since 2016 is far from approaching a crisis, yet a couple of semi-final losses is an irritant for Kilkenny given the remarkably high standards their teams have set in modern times. The second-half slump against Waterford in 2020 and the extra-time fade against Cork last year mean they won’t lack motivation on Saturday to break the last four barrier. They arrive with a pep in their step after the second-half stranglehold they exerted on the Leinster final, wearing down Galway’s challenge with a stubborn defence and seeing TJ Reid give a masterclass in both ball-winning and free-taking conversion.

adrian-mullen Kilkenny's Adrian Mullen. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

That Leinster final was a forceful response to some stuttering form after losing two of their last three games in the round-robin system. Mikey Butler has been a terrific addition to their defence and Adrian Mullen was at his classy point-taking best last time out. Brian Cody seeks a place in an All-Ireland senior final for the 17th time as a manager.

Clare

After the county has battled plenty negativity over their hurling fortunes on and off the pitch, this year has been a stirring revival for them. Demonstrated their superiority over three of their Munster rivals and pushed Limerick to the wire twice over the course of seventy-minute encounters that finished level. It only took extra-time before they lost that Munster final but they had made a rich contribution to an epic game.

tony-kelly-celebrates-the-final-whistle Clare's Tony Kelly. Source: Tom Maher/INPHO

The quarter-final stage felt a tricky assignment 13 days after such an emotionally and physically wearing experience as that provincial decider. To summon a last quarter comeback like they did against Wexford proved something about their resilience. Tony Kelly’s heroics continues, the return of Peter Duggan and Shane O’Donnell has been invaluable, but it is the improvement Brian Lohan has coaxed out of players like Paul Flanagan, Ryan Taylor and David Fitzgerald which has been most impressive. It’s nine years since they graced the All-Ireland hurling showpiece.

Limerick

Since 2018 they have been number one every season, save for the stumble in 2019 at the hands of Kilkenny. Three All-Ireland titles and four Munster crowns have been delivered, they look driven to complete three-in-a-row on the national stage. Those murmurings about their spring form have been quietened, the championship riposte seeing to that. There have been strong examinations of their credentials though, principally by a renewed Clare outfit.

diarmuid-byrnes Limerick's Diarmaid Byrnes. Source: Tom Maher/INPHO

The easing of their injury problems comes at an opportune time, how big could the potential availability of Cian Lynch and Peter Casey now be? Diarmaid Byrnes has been in towering form, the return of Mike Casey has solidified their defence and Seamus Flanagan was unstoppable in Thurles earlier this month. Still the team they all have to beat.

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Galway

As a sign of consistency, this represents Galway’s seventh appearance on the All-Ireland semi-final stage in the period since 2012. They have only mined one eventual title from those series of contests though and will face familiar foes on Sunday in the Limerick team that overturned them in the 2018 final and the 2020 semi-final. The margins were wafer-thin then, has the gap widened too much?

conor-whelan Galway's Conor Whelan. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Henry Shefflin’s first year saw their Leinster run end in disappointment with those second-half struggles in Croke Park against Kilkenny. They did bounce back against Cork, better signs of their defensive structure in the second half after being carved open early on. Conor Whelan’s form in attack has been sensational while Eanna Murphy was superb between the posts. To topple the champions they’ll need so much to go right and hope that key men like Joseph Cooney, Cathal Mannion and Daithi Burke are at the peak of their powers.

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About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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