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Race For Liam: The 4 teams bidding for All-Ireland hurling glory

Waterford, Limerick, Galway and Kilkenny are still in the hunt for the big prize.

Kilkenny

tj-reid-and-team-mates-at-the-end-of-the-game TJ Reid and team mates at the end of the Leinster final. Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

Their recent semi-final history involves…nothing but success. Brian Cody has led his team to 11 semi-finals since 2005 and they’ve won every one of them. Last year’s last four victory over holders Limerick was a big upset considering the Treaty’s form up to that point. Leinster champions Kilkenny arrive into this one as favourites against beaten Munster finalists Waterford.

The player they cannot do without is…TJ Reid, who is averaging 1-10 per game in the championship. He just turned 33 earlier this month but the Ballyhale man’s powers haven’t waned in the slightest. After a relatively quiet opening 55 minutes against Galway, he struck a hammer blow with Kilkenny’s second goal seconds after Richie Hogan’s opener. The Cats have scored five goals in the championship, the same number as the other three semi-finalists combined. Reid is a big reason for that.

They will be happy because…Paddy Deegan and Billy Ryan have returned from injury. Both missed out on the Leinster final but have been parachuted straight back into the team by Cody. There may be late changes to the side named last night, but regardless Hogan’s return to form is a major boost. 

They will be worried because…Dessie Hutchinson is really coming into form. The wide expanses and solid turf of Croke Park should suit his game. Austin Gleeson has shown signs he has a big 70-minute performance in him and Liam Cahill’s hard-working side won’t be put-off by Kilkenny’s famous intensity. 

A dilemma for the manager is…what he does with Hogan and Colin Fennelly. Hogan has been named on the starting team after his heroic cameo but it’s possible Cody will hold him in reserve until the second-half. Fennelly was poor in the Leinster final, yet great players rarely put bad games back-to-back and he has the size to cause problems for Waterford’s full-back line.  

Waterford

dessie-hutchinson Former Brighton soccer player Dessie Hutchinson. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Their recent semi-final history involves…six appearances at this stage since 2005 and just two victories. Waterford lost to Kilkenny in 2016 after a replay and beat Cork in 2017. This is their first one since. 

The player they cannot do without is…Tadhg de Burca. After he went down with a torn cruciate in late 2019 it looked like he’d miss the 2020 championship, but the pandemic worked in his favour. The Clashmore-Kinsalebeg star makes the Deise tick with his defensive positioning and top class distribution. If Reid starts at centre-forward, Liam Cahill may decide to deploy a man marker on him to allow de Burca sweep in front of the full-back. 

They will be happy because…they’ve gone toe-to-toe with Kilkenny in big games before. Under Derek McGrath, the Deise brought them to the wire in that epic 2016 semi-final replay in Thurles with nine players still involved from that day. Waterford famously beat the Cats in round 2 of the qualifiers the following year at the same venue. It was the last championship encounter between these teams so Waterford will hold no fear heading into today’s game.

They will be worried because…of the potency of the Kilkenny attack. Waterford’s full-back line have been well protected so far, yet the likes of Reid, Hogan and Fennelly have so many strings to their bow. Cody will always target weaknesses in the opposition and the Deise’s likely last line of defence – Ian Kenny, Conor Prunty and Shane McNulty – will get a stern test of their credentials.

Another concern for Cahill is fatigue. Waterford are lining out for their third straight weekend and fourth game in five weeks. It could well be a factor down the home straight. 

A dilemma for the manager is…who he puts on Reid. De Burca won’t track Reid all over the field if he plays as a roaming centre-forward which would give Waterford a headache as a player of his calibre needs to be man-marked. Conor Gleeson might well come into the reckoning to track Reid in the likely absence of Shane Fives through injury.

Galway

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conor-whelan Conor Whelan is in top form for Galway. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Their recent semi-final history involves…epic games. Galway left the race early in 2019, but their semi-finals of 2018, 2017 and 2016 were all match of the year contenders. They required a replay to overcome Clare two years ago and a last ditch Joe Canning point edged them past Tipperary in their All-Ireland winning campaign the year before. In 2016, Tipp edged them out by the minimum in another classic.

The player they cannot do without is…Canning. He remains the main man, even if Conor Whelan, Brian Concannon, Cathal Mannion, Padraig Mannion and Daithi Burke all are central figures in this Galway side. The Portumna ace always comes up trumps on the big games and he’ll be eyeing a second Celtic Cross after a fine display in the closing stages against the reigning champions. Canning is the top scorer left in the championship and his shoot-out with Aaron Gillane will be a big feature of this one.

They will be happy because…they’ve been producing good performances under Shane O’Neill, even if they lost the Leinster final after a late Kilkenny salvo. Galway showed their tactical flexibility by starting with a sweeper system against the Premier and switching out of it after half-time. Rookies Eanna Murphy, Shane Cooney and Fintan have settled into the team well and Galway boast a really strong squad. O’Neill whipped off veterans David Burke and Johnny Coen at half-time against Tipp and they didn’t miss a beat. 

They will be worried because…like Waterford, it’s their third week of action in a row. The Gaelic Grounds looked heavy on the legs last weekend. Since the provincial round robin was introduced no side managed to win on their third weekend in succession, though the likes of Cavan footballers proved that it might not be insurmountable.

A dilemma for the manager is…how he matches up his defence against the Limerick attack. John Kiely likes to isolate Aaron Gillane on the edge of the square when he plays in Croke Park, so Daithi Burke is the obvious man to take him. O’Neill will also be tempted to play a sweeper from the start to keep the game tight. Plenty for the Na Piarsaigh man to ponder heading into this one.

Limerick

aaron-gillane-and-diarmaid-byrnes-celebrate-after-winning Aaron Gillane and Diarmaid Byrnes celebrate after defeating Waterford. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Their recent semi-final history involves…a shock loss to Kilkenny in 2019 and a thrilling extra-time defeat of Cork in 2018. It’s been 15 months since the Cats dumped them out last year. The Darragh O’Donovan sideline that wasn’t awarded as a 65 will still be fresh on the minds of the Limerick players. They’ll want to ensure they don’t get caught on the hop this time around.

The player they cannot do without is…Gillane. Limerick are such a well-oiled machine with a defined system and they’re far from a one-trick pony, so it’s hard to put one player above the rest. Gillane is their free-taker and primary scoring threat so he gets the nod here. But any one of Peter Casey, Gearoid Hegarty, Tom Morrissey, Cian Lynch or Graeme Mulcahy could do the damage for Kiely’s men. 

They will be happy because…they’re a team at the peak of their powers, Limerick are back-to-back league and Munster champions. At present, they look like the hurling version of Dublin – even if they’re not as far down the road in terms of success yet. It doesn’t matter who they’re playing, they’ll play the game on their terms and generally come out on top. They fell at this stage last season and only beat Galway by a point in the 2018 final so Kiely’s side know the challenge that awaits them.

They will be worried because…Waterford got to grips with their system, even if they lost the Munster final by four points. The secret to competing with the Treaty appears to be packing the middle third, holding the half-back line in position and using your half-forward line to drop back and smother theirs. Above all else, Limerick’s ferocious work-rate has to be matched if they’re to be beaten and their puck-outs have to be dealt with. Galway boss O’Neill knows Limerick so well from his time managing Na Piarsaigh, so if anyone can take them out it’s him. 

A dilemma for the manager is…whether Darragh O’Donovan starts. If he does, he’ll go to midfield and Lynch will revert to centre-forward. There has been talk that Richie English could feature after returning to training after a cruciate injury, but it would be a huge risk to throw him into a game of such magnitude from the start without any championship minutes under the belt. Kiely may also be tempted to give the nod to Seamus Flanagan to give the Galway defence an extra aerial threat to think about.

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About the author:

Kevin O'Brien

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