Weekend football and hurling previews: Munster and Connacht titles to be decided
By Kevin Egan
Eight contenders will become six in the race for both the Liam MacCarthy and Sam Maguire Cups this weekend, with Cork and Galway supporters facing into a particularly tense or exciting couple of days, depending on your disposition when watching your county team!
Galway hurling followers and their Waterford counterparts share one thing in common – both know that their county sides need to find significant improvement from their last competitive outing, and that they certainly have the talent and the scope to do so.
Waterford probably hold a slight advantage in that they’ve had 70 minutes of very competitive championship hurling in which to iron out the creases that led to their provincial championship defeat, but the evidence from their clash with Laois last Saturday is that as the game went on, it was Laois – and not Liam Cahill’s men – who were getting better as the game progressed.
Certainly the jury is out on the five changes that were made to the starting Waterford team, not to mention the positional switches. Conor Prunty’s return to the full back berth was a huge boost and while Jamie Barron had barely a quarter of an hour to play once he was brought on, the three-time All Star from Fourmilewater will surely play a much bigger role in Thurles tomorrow.
Patrick Curran’s switch to midfield showed potential, but Austin Gleeson moving to full forward and Shane Bennett dropping to wing back didn’t lead to either player making a bigger impact than might have been the case previously, so there is a sense that this Waterford team is still a long way from where they need to be.
For Galway, it’s all about finding more scores. In 12 Liam MacCarthy Cup games and 30 Allianz league division one hurling contests so far this year, only Laois (in the first round of the league against Wexford) raised fewer than the 15 flags Galway drew against Dublin in the Leinster semi-final. The last time the Tribesmen scored less than that in a championship game? All of ten years ago, and rather remarkably, it was also against Dublin in a Leinster semi-final, where it finished 0-19 to 2-7.
On that occasion a decade ago, four of the starting Galway forward line finished without a score. A fortnight ago, five starting Galway forwards registered 0-2 between them. Expect Shane O’Neill to begin by ringing the changes in that sector, as he tries to rediscover the form that saw Galway share the Allianz League title with Kilkenny.
Less than an hour after the final whistle sounds at Semple Stadium, the action will get underway on the Ennis Road in Limerick, with Clare taking on Cork in a game that will be the ultimate test of whether it’s better to come into a contest like this fresh, or battle-hardened.
Clare have expended a huge amount of physical and emotional energy in a topsy-turvy championship thus far, while Cork have played one game, a contest that they weren’t widely expected to win against Limerick. The Rebels competed well for long stretches of that game but ultimately paid the price for conceding two goals just before half-time.
For Clare and manager Brian Lohan, beating Wexford was significant and they’ll take huge heart from the manner in which it was achieved. In 2020, the two counties met in Portlaoise and Tony Kelly effectively put his Banner colleagues on his shoulders and carried them across the line with a heroic performance. This time around Kelly did his part, but no more than that, and the same could be said for John Conlon at the heart of the defence. It was a far more balanced, all-round performance that pushed Clare through, and now it’s just a question of recovery and fitness with such a short turnaround time.
Cork’s defeat to Limerick wasn’t unexpected, but the manner of it was. They competed well under the puckouts, coming close to a 50% share, but were instead hammered by their own inefficiency and inaccuracy. That would be surprising under normal circumstances, but doubly so here as Patrick Horgan was off target with a couple of dead ball chances that would normally be considered stone-cold certainties for him.
That Kieran Kingston had replaced his entire half-forward line by the 55th minute of the Limerick game is probably a strong indication of where Cork will look to shake things up tomorrow. With Jack O’Connor looking sharp and Horgan likely to bounce back into form, closer to goal won’t be as big of a concern.
Mental strength and the ability to refocus will be vital for Laois and Westmeath at MW Hire O’Moore Park in the league relegation final. Laois will feel that they let a glorious chance slip against Waterford last week, yet straight after the game, manager Seamus Plunkett was quick to stress that for the long term future of Laois hurling, this is a much bigger game for them.
Westmeath will join Laois in next year’s Leinster championship after their Joe McDonagh Cup final success last weekend, and there’s a lot to like about Shane O’Brien’s side. Niall Mitchell is capable of creating goals out of nothing with his unique combination of size and speed, Darragh Egerton is hurling incredibly well at corner back and will have sky-high confidence on the back of his superb display against Shane Conway, and there is plenty of impact on the bench. Add in the presence of proven and experienced hurlers like Tommy Doyle, Tommy Gallagher, Cormac Boyle and Robbie Greville along the spine of defence and at midfield, and they’ve a lot of the pieces in place.
Home advantage and Paddy Purcell hurling to a level that will put him in the conversation for All-Star nomination will be the trump cards on the Laois side tomorrow evening.
History will be made on Sunday afternoon when for the first time ever, the Connacht senior football final will be held outside the province. Croke Park will host the 132nd Connacht Final (117th, not including replays) and it’s a repeat of the 2020 pair of Galway and Mayo who will go into battle.
Last November, Sligo’s enforced absence from the championship meant that the final in Pearse Stadium was Galway’s one and only outing, while Mayo had previously played both Leitrim and Roscommon. This time around Mayo have again had two starts, but Galway’s win over the Rossies at Dr. Hyde Park will leave them much better prepared.
Add in the enforced absence of Cillian O’Connor, and there are several reasons why Galway and manager Pádraic Joyce will feel optimistic about their prospects.
Yet while Mayo are short their top scorer, James Horan also seems to have unearthed even more new talent, while players like Tommy Conroy and Oisín Mullin, who burst onto the scene in 2020, have pushed their game onto a whole new level this Summer. Darren McHale has forced himself into a very talented forward line, and while he hasn’t yet had much chance to show it, word around the county is that Paul Towey is a player who is capable of changing a game in Mayo’s favour at some stage.
Injury doubts still surround key men like Eoghan McLaughlin and Diarmuid O’Connor, but there is a sense of “championship ready” about Mayo that can’t be said for certain about Galway. Matthew Tierney is clearly the real deal as a two-footed scoring threat and an all-round talent at midfield while Paul Kelly also looks like a serious addition to the team, but Damien Comer clearly needed the game against Roscommon and still has a long way to go to be back to his best. Shane Walsh also struggled at Dr. Hyde Park, though the current heatwave is far more likely to suit the mercurial Kilkerrin-Clonberne man than the pouring rain and sodden ground that prevailed three weeks ago.
Finally, it’s the game that Kerry have craved ever since Mark Keane’s shot crashed to the back of their net in last year’s Munster semi-final at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. That defeat to Cork has rankled with Kingdom supporters ever since, and the dramatic scenes in the recent Munster U-20 semi-final between the two counties, where the Rebels edged another one-score game, won’t have ameliorated that feeling in the slightest.
There aren’t any secrets in the Kerry team at this stage, and for Cork to have a chance of repeating last year’s win, a lot will hinge on the performance of their man-marking defenders. Seán Meehan looks better and better every time he takes the field and his likely match up with Seán O’Shea will be hugely significant, while closer to Mícheál Martin’s goal, Sean Powter may be handed the unenviable task of picking up David Clifford.
Powter’s switch to the full back line might seem like it takes away from his attacking ability, but Cork aren’t short of options for the five and seven jerseys – shutdown corner backs is another matter however. Powter has adjusted well to the role and while pairing him up against Paudie Clifford might afford him the option of moving out the field more, Powter’s pace and power would be of huge value in trying to stop David Clifford find a way inside him to threaten the goal.
It’s 26 years today (Friday) since Cork last beat Kerry in the championship at Fitzgerald Stadium. Kerry had both Clare and Tipperary out of sight by half-time so far this summer, they’ll aim to do the same here. The longer this one stays tight, the more the ghost of last November at the Páirc might start to haunt the home side, while last night's U-20 championship win has boosted the feelgood factor in Cork football circles another notch.
Saturday, July 24
All-Ireland senior hurling championship qualifiers
Waterford v Galway, Semple Stadium, 2pm, Sky Sports
Clare v Cork, LIT Gaelic Grounds, 4.30pm, Sky Sports
Allianz Hurling League Division One relegation playoff
Laois v Westmeath, MW Hire O’Moore Park, 7.30pm. TG4
Sunday July 25
Connacht senior football championship final
Galway v Mayo, Croke Park, 1.30pm. RTE
Munster senior football championship final
Kerry v Cork, Fitzgerald Stadium, 4pm. RTE