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Limerick's big test, Clare's progress, relentless Kilkenny and Waterford blueprint

Some championship clues will be provided at Semple Stadium in Sunday’s mouthwatering Allianz Hurling League semi-final double header.

1. Limerick’s big test

Limerick manager TJ Ryan. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Limerick are resigned to a seventh successive season outside of hurling’s top flight but they could still end up winning the National League outright.

It’s one of the many anomalies within the current structures but Limerick would dearly love to capture national silverware and announce themselves as summer dark horses.

There’s talent aplenty in the Shannonside ranks but now they face the reigning League champions in what could turn out to be a dress rehearsal for a Munster final later in the summer.

Tactics, as always when Waterford are involved, will play a part and what Limerick boss TJ Ryan comes up with will make for interesting viewing.

Does he trust his players and their ability to go toe to toe with the Déise or will Ryan devise a gameplan aimed at curtailing Waterford’s strengths?

Limerick could do with another game before the Munster championship as they’re not out until the semi-final stage on 19 June.

Whether or not Waterford will allow them to book a League final slot is a moot point but Limerick have the talent to compete with the best. How Ryan maximises that potential is a pressing concern for Limerick fans.

2. The Loughnane factor

Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Ger Loughnane’s recent comments about Kilkenny have stoked the fires ahead of Sunday’s League semi-final between Clare and Kilkenny.

They will have come as manna from heaven for Cats boss Brian Cody and perhaps the timing of them couldn’t have been worse for current Clare supremo Davy Fitzgerald.

Kilkenny forward Colin Fennelly has described Loughnane’s musings as “weird”  and 2015 Hurler of the Year TJ Reid has also had his say. 

Loughnane has Kilkenny talking and Cody, a manager constantly looking for an angle and extra motivation for his players, found both arriving on his lap at just the right time.

Clare could feel the wrath of a Kilkenny backlash and while games are certainly not won in online news articles or indeed in newsprint, Loughnane’s description of Kilkenny as “functional” and over-reliant on Reid and Richie Hogan has hit a nerve on Noreside.

3. Clare’s progress

Davy Fitzgerald celebrates at the final whistle Clare boss Davy Fitzgerald celebrates victory over Tipperary. Source: Lorraine O’Sullivan/INPHO

Clare did what they had to do in Division 1B, winning all of their matches and beating Limerick in their final group outing to gain promotion.

They also met the Tipperary challenge head on at Cusack Park but any assessment of the Clare performance in that match must include a mention of Premier County profligacy.

Tipp were incredibly wasteful on the day, with Seamus Callanan and John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer particularly off-colour, and the visitors registered 18 wides over the course of 70 plus minutes.

Davy Fitzgerald will realise that Clare got out of jail against Tipp but on the flipside, he will have been absolutely delighted that his charges got the job done despite still missing so many key players.

David McInerney, 2013 Hurler of the Year Tony Kelly, Shane O’Donnell, Colin Ryan and Podge Collins were all ruled out for various reasons and Clare should only get stronger when they return.

4. Kilkenny’s relentlessness

Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

It’s just over a year since Kilkenny beat Clare in a relegation playoff to preserve their Division 1A status.

But right from the start of the 2016 campaign, it was clear to see that manager Brian Cody was placing a greater emphasis on the League.

Kilkenny cantered through to the semi-finals as table-toppers, winning four and losing one of their five group outings before demolishing Offaly in the quarter-finals.

Without TJ Reid and Richie Hogan against the Faithful County, the Cats still managed to rack up a massive tally of 6-20 and Cody is getting back to the stage where he has two players competing for each position.

There was a feeling in recent seasons that Kilkenny’s strength in depth was on the wane but nobody’s been able to step up to the plate and take them out.

And slowly but surely, Cody appears to be assembling another team that looks set for a renewed period of dominance.

5. Waterford’s summer blueprint

Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

Derek McGrath is a wily strategist but he may not be willing to give too much away as the championship summer looms.

Still, McGrath is a man who doesn’t tend to deviate too much from a tried and trusted system but he’ll realise that his team will need to be a little more expansive if they want to crack on and push for an All-Ireland title.

Another game of high intensity, and against quality opposition in the form of Limerick, will allow McGrath to refine and tweak, if necessary, his gameplan ahead of the big one with Clare that’s fast coming down the tracks.

Waterford have some hugely talented individual hurlers but doubts still remain about the collective’s ability to claim Liam MacCarthy Cup glory in September.

The manager wouldn’t turn his nose up at another League title but he knows that Waterford will be judged on what they achieve in the championship.

And with the Clare game on 5 June fast approaching, the time for experimentation is fast running out. We can expect to see flashes of what Waterford will be about in the white heat of championship when they tackle Limerick, and potentially Clare or Kilkenny in a League decider.

6. So who will emerge?

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

On all known form, it’s difficult to see past a Kilkenny-Waterford final.

The most obvious reason for this is that both counties have been playing a higher level all season but the fact that Wexford ran Waterford so close at the quarter-final stage will give Limerick reason to be optimistic.

Limerick walloped Wexford by 14 points in Division 1B while Waterford had just a single point to spare against the Slaneysiders.

Following that direct line of form, there’s a case to be made for Limerick and the Munster derby nature of proceedings will ensure that it’s tight.

For Clare, this is the acid test against Kilkenny but they can also view it as essentially a free shot ahead of the Munster SHC showdown with Waterford.

Clare will look to make it tight against the Cats but Kilkenny appear to have too much firepower for any opposition right now.

Clare have proven, however, that they can survive in high-pressure situations, claiming a winner-takes-all promotion shootout win against Limerick before coming from behind in the closing minutes to snatch victory over Tipp.

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‘We’re trying to manage the talk about it’ – Derek McGrath on Waterford’s goal drought

‘I’ll never be Henry Shefflin, he’s the king of hurling’ – TJ Reid

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