Preview: All-Ireland SHC semi-finals
All-Ireland SHC semi-finals
Saturday, July 2
Kilkenny v Clare, Croke Park, 5.30pm - RTE/Sky Sports Arena
Referee: Fergal Horgan (Tipperary)
Extra-time if necessary
Neutrals are nearly as excited about this match as much as Kilkenny and Clare supporters are because it promises to be a cracker.
When assessing the various strengths of each team it’s very difficult to say if either has an apparent edge over the other, so a highly competitive, high-scoring match seems likely.
There are always variables, though, and the most obvious one is will Clare benefit from having had a match two weeks ago compared to Kilkenny’s four-week lay-off?
The nature of that win over Wexford should also act as a real confidence booster for the Banner County.
They looked flat for much of the quarter-final clash which is perhaps understandable considering how mentally and physically draining their extra-time Munster Final defeat to Limerick must have been.
But they showed serious resolve to come good in the final 10 minutes of the game to claim a dramatic victory and that sort of triumph in the face of adversity always bonds a team even closer together.
You can be sure that Brian Cody watched that game with a beady eye and noted how the Clare full-back line struggled to deal with long deliveries into the danger-area.
Players like TJ Reid, Eoin Cody, and Walter Walsh are very strong in the air, so don’t be surprised if Kilkenny take a direct approach on Saturday and go for goals.
That ability to raise green flags is a potential advantage that Kilkenny have over the Banner. They’ve scored 14 en route to Saturday’s semi-final, whereas Clare have only managed six.
If Clare can keep that back door locked they’ll believe an edge in the middle third of the pitch can be decisive. Their settled midfield partnership of Cathal Malone and Ryan Taylor has excelled this summer, whereas Kilkenny have tried a number of different partnerships in search of the best mix.
Expect Brian Lohan’s team to also attack Kilkenny down the flanks where they’ll believe players like Tony Kelly, David Fitzgerald, and Shane O’Donnell will have an edge in pace against the Kilkenny half-backs.
It’s hard to believe that this will only be the fourth time that Tony Kelly will have played in Croke Park for Clare, and most of his team-mates have even less experience of the venue.
The Kilkenny players will be far more accustomed to the environment, which, in a game of likely very fine margins might also be a factor.
They lost All-Ireland semi-finals in 2020 and 2021 and the lessons learned from those defeats should also stand them in good stead.
“In a way, losing the last two All-Ireland semi-finals does serve as a bit of motivation but looking at those games, they are in the past and our eyes are on the future now and we know an All-Ireland semi-final with Clare is going to be a massive test and we know that of the teams left anyone can beat anyone on any given day,” says Kilkenny captain Richie Reid.
“Clare showed in the Munster final what they are capable of and the crowd and intensity was massive in Thurles but every game takes on a life of its own.
“We know we just need to get things right from a Kilkenny point of view and the rest will take care of itself.
“Limerick have been the top team in the country over the last few years but everyone else feels they have a chance too and even with Clare nobody was talking about them at the start of the year but they have stepped up to the plate in the last few weeks.”
Going purely on form lines so far in the Championship, Clare can offer a more convincing case for victory. They haven’t last a match in regulation time, whereas Kilkenny have tasted defeat twice already.
Perhaps though they’re timing their run to form perfectly because their Leinster SHC Final display was their best of the campaign, whereas Clare might struggle to maintain the high standards they’ve set from the off.
It’s going to be a fascinating match, and the likelihood is that it’ll come down to a wafer-thin margin on the scoreline.
Sunday, July 3
Limerick v Galway, Croke Park, 3.30pm – RTE/Sky Sports Arena
Referee: Thomas Walsh (Waterford)
Extra-time if necessary
So impressive have Limerick been over the course of the last three championships that those vainly looking for chinks in their armour tend to focus on externals.
Coming into Sunday’s All-Ireland SHC semi-final against Galway, the focus has been on the four-week break the Shannonsiders have had since defeating Clare in that epic Munster Final.
Will that break mean the reigning All-Ireland champions could be a little bit undercooked compared to a Galway team that have had the benefit of a tough match just two weeks ago?
Limerick manager, John Kiely, sounds very confident it won’t.
“Maybe four years ago if you said we’d get a four week break it might have been a different scenario, but this time round it was exactly what we needed,” said Kiely.
“After a really tough game against Clare we needed a bit of time to heal and now we’re well into our preparations. We were able to go away last week on a camp and worked really hard.
“Our injury list is really tidy which means the quality of our sessions is probably the best they’ve been all season. The lads are mentally fresh, physically fresh and we have a very competitive group, everyone is driving to be on the 26 and the 15, which is a healthy thing to have.”
That sounds fairly ominous from a Galway point of view. Limerick are always a formidable opponent, but all the more so if they’re mentally and physically fresh coming into this game.
They’ve gotten this far without two of their best players from last year’s championship, Cian Lynch and Peter Casey, but with that duo available once again they’ll have an embarrassment of riches in attack.
The silver lining from a Galway point of view is that this match is almost a free shot because no-one really expects them to beat Limerick.
They shouldn’t feel burdened by the usual pressure that goes with playing in an All-Ireland semi-final because they’ve been widely written off, so that might free them mentally to go out and hurl with abandon.
“It’s a unique challenge because we’re facing a team going for three in-a-row, they’re going to be raging hot favourites,” said Galway manager, Henry Shefflin.
“But it’s a unique opportunity for us to go in with no major pressure and have an opportunity to face up to the best. That’s what you want to do as players and as a management team – you want to challenge yourself. That’s what we’re going to get against Limerick.’’
Galway are better equipped than many other teams to match Limerick’s physicality, but it will take more than that.
They’ll need to win some key match-ups, with the most obvious ones being Daithi Burke against Aaron Gillane, Pádraic Mannion against Gearoid Hegarty, and Conor Whelan against Mike Casey.
Come out on top in all three of those, and then they have a fighting chance.
Tactically, they need to find a way around the iron shield that is the Limerick half-back line.
Clare have shown the best way to do this is through the speed and ceaseless movement of players like Tony Kelly, Shane O’Donnell, and David Fitzgerald, but Galway arguably don’t possess players with the same elusiveness.
They have traditionally preferred a more direct, brawny approach in their half-forward line, but that would play into Limerick’s hands. A better bet might be to move the Limerick half-backs around and create pockets of space for players like Tom Monaghan and Cathal Mannion to drift in to.
Galway have to win the tactical chess-game because if the game is decided on the merits of each individual battle, then Limerick look to have the greater quality.
It’s very difficult to outwit Limerick though, especially as they’ve had the benefit of a training camp in Kerry to prepare for this match.
“It’s invaluable because it’s not just about what you get done on the pitch but what you get done off the pitch," said Kiely of that training weekend.
"We did a huge amount of work not just on the pitch but in areas like analysis - every respect, it’s about galvanising the group, because when you think about it that’s what shines through in these games.
“The tightness within the group will be tested and when you get down to those really fine margins in the final seconds or minutes of those games, what comes through is the unity, the togetherness of our group shines through. The real confidence.”
It sounds like Limerick are coming into this match in a very good place both physically and mentally. Galway will need to produce something extra-special to knock them out of their stride.