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Tuesday 15 October 2019

Hurling's top four do battle for Liam

Limerick the form team but holders must be wary

Aaron Gillane of Limerick in action against Tipperary’s Seán O’Brien during the Munster final
Aaron Gillane of Limerick in action against Tipperary’s Seán O’Brien during the Munster final

Cast your mind back to this weekend last year: in a summer dominated by hurling, this was the show-stopping centrepiece.

Two epic semi-finals, both stretching to extra-time (and one of those to a replay) contained an eye-watering seven goals, 123 points and enough dramatic oscillations to leave the dumbfounded spectator with twisted blood.

Galway, Clare, Limerick and Cork were the four protagonists and John Kiely's Treaty trailblazers were the only ones guaranteed their final berth after that manic weekend. Ultimately they would take home Liam MacCarthy to end 45 years of Limerick longing.

Twelve months on, Limerick are the last team standing of last year's top four: proof of hurling's rude competitive health. They are warm favourites to go back-to-back, but could they be about to sleepwalk into a Brian Cody trap?

This latest festival of Croke Park hurling kicks off with Saturday's Limerick/Kilkenny semi-final (6pm) and ends with Wexford/Tipperary on Sunday (3.30). Here we assess all four . . .

LIMERICK

Currently possess every top honour within reach. Awesome is an overused Americanism but it's possibly the best way to describe their Munster final subjugation of Tipperary. If they retain that stellar level, the 2019 grand slam of hurling surely beckons. Two caveats, though: the recent record of holders (Tipp in '17, Galway last year) tipped to reign; and the flashing-amber danger of a straight knock-out duel with an improving Kilkenny.

STRENGTHS: A finely tuned system that facilitates domination of the congested middle-third. Super-charged athleticism and physicality should not disguise their slick possession retention and the brilliance of their marquee talents. Did we mention their bench? Few managers have such a luxury of options.

WEAKNESSES: They've already lost twice this summer (even if you suspect a hint of shadow-boxing against Tipp). Ergo, they're not invincible. Even as they obliterated Tipp on day two, they amassed 17 wides.

MAIN MAN: Aaron Gillane. One of Limerick's greatest strengths is they aren't overly reliant on any one player; you could name-check Seán Finn, Declan Hanlon, Cian Lynch or Kyle Hayes from any other line, but Gillane on his day provides an unstoppable cutting edge.

X-FACTOR: Shane Dowling. As Dublin footballers have long shown us, having a match-winner you can trust to deliver off the bench is huge.

ODDS: 8/15 to beat Kilkenny; 11/10 to win All-Ireland.

TOP FOUR RATING - 1: Still the team to beat.

KILKENNY

WRITTEN off too hastily after the Leinster final, when the biggest surprise was their game-management as they chased a late goal when points might easily have saved the day against Wexford. Their third-quarter suffocation and obliteration of Cork has caused a stark reassessment of Kilkenny, who have most of their wounded warriors back in fighting form.

STRENGTHS: The unbreakable spirit that Brian Cody has successfully transferred from one generation to the next. The Noreside nous to think their way out of trouble (against Dublin in May and Cork 11 days ago) and turn games into an arm-wrestle. That, and a handful of decorated legends still doing the business.

WEAKNESSES: If games open up and their inside defenders get exposed one on one, they can look very vulnerable. This is their first semi-final since 2016; we're about to find out if they're still elite contenders.

MAIN MAN: TJ Reid by a mile, despite not scoring from play against Cork. Phenomenal tally of 5-64 in six games. Ball-winner with the touch of an artist, lethal goalscorer, deadball assassin, leader.

X-FACTOR: Eoin Murphy's acrobatics almost saved Kilkenny against Limerick last July; maybe it could tip the balance on Saturday?

ODDS: 2/1 to beat Limerick; 4/1 to win All-Ireland.

TOP FOUR RATING - 3: But all bets will be off if they can do a number on Limerick.

WEXFORD

PERHAPS, Laois apart, the story of summer so far. Davy Fitzgerald needed a year three bounce and boy has he delivered. A first Leinster title in 15 years makes 2019 a resounding success, no matter, but they have every chance of going further, especially if Tipperary fail to rediscover their early-summer mojo.

STRENGTHS: Incredibly hard to beat, reflected in three round-robin deadlocks before they famously edged Kilkenny. And flying fit: cue several high-turbo finishes. They are in tune with the sweeper system, play with huge energy but also possess ball-winners (Rory O'Connor, Conor McDonald) who can hurt.

WEAKNESSES: Inexperience at this rarefied level. And, notwithstanding their Leinster final shooting stats (just three wides) will they score enough, especially if they fall behind?

MAIN MAN: Lee Chin. His long-range frees have defied the doubters but his inspirational ball-winning and buzzing presence all over the field make him key.

X-FACTOR: Davy Fitz. Behind the Shakespearian melodrama lies a heavyweight tactician. Led his Clare underdogs to the 2013 summit but this would be bigger again.

ODDS: 5/2 to beat Tipperary; 15/2 to win All-Ireland.

TOP FOUR RATING - 4: Harsh given their Leinster heroics, but they are the outsiders.

TIPPERARY

Those swashbuckling masters of the Munster round-robin suffered the rudest of awakenings against Limerick, and the doubts weren't dispelled by their underwhelming win over Laois. Still, Liam Sheedy has a history of All-Ireland resurrection from 2010.

STRENGTHS: When the forwards click, they're mesmerising. If their inside assassins get enough ball, they will kill you.

WEAKNESSES: The loss of 'Bonner' Maher is huge, exposing Tipp's old ball-winning Achilles heel in the half-forward line. Full-back position and flat-lining form are other issues.

MAIN MAN: Séamus Callanan. He has found the net in all six games. If the other parts of Tipp's game function, Callanan can add the finishing touches.

X-FACTOR: John O'Dwyer was like a magician reborn in the early rounds but has laboured in recent weeks. Tipp need 'Bubbles' at his mercurial best.

ODDS: 4/9 to beat Wexford; 2/1 to win All-Ireland.

TOP FOUR RATING - 2: Only because of their pedigree and potential, plus the (relatively less daunting) draw.

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