Preview: This weekend's Hurling Championship matches
Saturday, June 4
Leinster Senior Hurling Championship Final
Galway v Kilkenny, Croke Park, 7pm - RTE2
The most obvious reference point when analysing Saturday’s Leinster SHC Final is the thunderous match both teams contested five weeks ago.
Galway eventually won by the slimmest of margins and it was a just about deserved victory too, but Kilkenny could count themselves unfortunate also not have at least claimed a draw.
Both teams will have pored over the video footage of that match since in search of any lessons that will prove valuable for this re-match, because the margins are likely to be very fine again.
Kilkenny will feel that Croke Park will make for a more hospitable venue that Salthill which is always a very tough place to go and get a result against the Tribesmen.
The Cats are trying to refine a shorter-passing game than you’d traditionally associate with them, and it came unstuck quite a bit against the aggressive pressing and defending of the Galway players in Salthill.
The wider expanses of Croke Park and the harder ground and more clement weather five weeks on might make it that bit easier to execute.
A priority for Kilkenny will be to compete better in the middle third than they did in Salthill when the Galway combination of Joseph Cooney and Thomas Monaghan completely eclipsed Cillian Buckley and James Maher.
The Galway duo scored a combined seven points from play in that match and have been carrying a potent scoring threat all year. If they’re allowed to dictate the terms of the game like they did in Salthill, then it’s very much advantage Galway.
A different Kilkenny midfield pairing of Alan Murphy and Adrian Mullen were also second-best in Kilkenny’s defeat to Wexford, so this is clearly an area in which the Cats are struggling to find a settled and effective partnership.
There’s little to pick between the teams in terms of scoring power and defensive solidity. In the round robin phase of the Leinster championship Galway scored 164 points with 110 conceded, while Kilkenny scored 159 points with 108 conceded.
Drill a bit deeper though, and there are some obvious differences with how they attack, with Kilkenny scoring 14 goals to Galway’s seven.
Galway manager Henry Shefflin will definitely feel that as long as they don’t concede more goals than Kilkenny do they’ll win this match because they have better long-distance point-shooters around the middle third than the Cats do.
They’ll also have a fully fit Conor Whelan to call on from the start unlike five weeks ago when he was limited to a second-half substitute’s appearance.
As for Kilkenny, they’ll hope that key players like TJ Reid and Adrian Mullen can perform much better than they did the last day out against Galway.
The form-line slightly favours Galway, but expect this match to be a nail-biter.
Joe McDonagh Cup final
Antrim v Kerry, Croke Park, 5pm - RTE2
Just two weeks after playing one another, Antrim and Kerry do it again in Saturday’s Joe McDonagh Cup Final.
Kerry won the last encounter, which along with a surprise win for Carlow over Offaly ensured the Kingdom qualified for their third Joe McDonagh Cup Final in succession.
How much should we read into the fact Kerry have beaten Antrim already this year?
It’s certainly not inconsequential and at the very least a timely confidence-booster for Stephen Molumphy’s team, but it should be weighted against the fact that Antrim had already qualified for the Final and rested some front-liners for that game.
Prior to that defeat Antrim had won their pervious four matches in the competition by an average of 12 points and ended up scoring a whopping 20-116 from five matches.
That sort of scoring power combined with the fact that they performed so creditably against opponents like Kilkenny and Waterford in the Allianz hurling League this year makes them favourites to win this match with good reason.
Sunday, June 5
Munster SHC final
Clare v Limerick, Semple Stadium, 4pm - RTE2
It seems a long time ago now when people were adjudicating that this Limerick hurling team had lost their edge after a couple of sub-par performances in the League.
An unbeaten run through Munster on the way to Sunday’s provincial Final has under-scored that the reigning All-Ireland champions are very much the team to beat.
They set the tone early by swallowing Cork whole in the first match of the round-robin series and no-one is wondering anymore whether their appetite has been sated by three All-Ireland wins in four years.
“There is a massive drive and hunger within the group to push ourselves as far as we possibly can in training and then when it comes to matches to push ourselves again,” says team captain Declan Hannon.
“We’ve been asked a bit about the appetite and hunger and if it’s still there and it most certainly is and you can see that in performances to date. People are giving everything that they have and it will be the same on Sunday. It’s the players and management together.
"The management are really driven as are all of the players - there are guys at training who drive the standard consistently. Everyone knows that if you don’t perform in training you won’t get the opportunities to play in games so we are constantly pushing each other in training and then that comes onto the pitch which is what it is all about.”
What makes Sunday’s Munster Final so intriguing is that not only do Limerick look back to their formidable best, Clare have hurled so sensationally in this provincial campaign that they’re coming into this match with a great chance of causing an upset.
The two teams have met twice already this year in League and Championship and both games ended in a draw.
Limerick supporters will say that their team wasn’t firing on all cylinders in the League and had already qualified for the Munster Final so didn’t need to be at full throttle for the championship meeting three weeks ago and that John Kiely’s team will raise their level for this match.
That may all be true, but it’s definitely a factor that Clare have no fear of this Limerick team and will take them on in a manner in which other teams either aren’t capable of doing or don’t back themselves to do.
Clare scored more than any other team in the round-robin series, and that’s thanks in no small part to the fact that their attack has been seriously strengthened by the return of Shane O’Donnell and Peter Duggan.
O’Donnell especially has been sensational, hitting the ground running in terrific style after a year out of the game due to concussion issues. The zest he plays the game with sums up everything that has been good about Clare so far this year.
“It has been brilliant,” said O’Donnell after Clare's win over Waterford. “The second I got back on the pitch I knew I had made the right decision. I have rolled a few challenges over the past few weeks, today again and I have kind of got over that psychological challenge of thinking that every time I get a clip on my head I am going to step back to where I was last year. So I think I can safely say now that it’s behind me.
“Obviously when things are going well you’re winning games, it’s brilliant and it’s brilliant to be out there. But playing my first game against Tipp, just togging out and going on the pitch, that was my biggest achievement and that would have been enough this year.
“Everything since then has been bonus territory for me personally but obviously I am thrilled that we’re winning games and I’m delighted to be in the Munster Final.”
For Clare are to win this match they’ll have to play the game on their own terms. If they’re sucked into a physical battle of attrition with Limerick they’ll eventually be ground down.
But if they can keep the ball moving quickly, use the full width of the pitch, and find players like Shane O’Donnell and Tony Kelly in pockets of space, they can ask serious questions of Limerick.
You wouldn’t bet against John Kiely’s team having all the answers, though.