Door's open for Limerick to add the final veneer on hurling's finest summer
All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship final: Galway v Limerick (tomorrow, 3.30pm, Croke Park, live on RTÉ Two and Sky Sports Arena)
IF the northside of Dublin finds its dusk lit up by the green plumes of Limerick’s faithful following tomorrow night, then you'll know the most illuminating of hurling summers has had its fairytale ending.
For Limerick to win the All-Ireland any summer would release them from the bonds of occasional letdown. Their final appearances could earn no more frequent a title than generational. This will be their sixth since Éamonn Grimes led them up through the Hogan Stand after beating Kilkenny 45 years ago, and it would be wrong to say they’d even hammered at the door in those deciders.
Going to Croke Park just to march behind the band was effectively how Shane Dowling categorised previous efforts after their semi-final win over Cork. But wrapped up in his words, and those of his manager John Kiely in the immediate aftermath, was a sure indication that they’d always planned to be here.
Two All-Ireland under-21 titles in the last three years have already presented them with the spine of a new team. From last year’s success alone, they’ve transplanted five new starters in – Seán Finn, Cian Lynch, Kyle Hayes, Tom Morrissey and Aaron Gillane, while Peter Casey will certainly play some part too.
Their entire starting full-back line of Finn, Richie English and Mike Casey have played together right through, winning the U21 title in 2015, and that team also provided Diarmuid Byrnes, Gearoid Hegarty, Domhnall O’Donovan and Pat Ryan.
It wasn’t that they came from nowhere this year. It’s just that it seemed a bit before their time, especially with the demanding nature of the new format.
That they’ve coped with it and wound up here owes a fair bit to the depth of quality playing resources that those successes have offered to John Kiely, who’s stepped in and pieced it together.
Their bench won them the semi-final against Cork, not least Dowling himself. The debate will rage right up until throw-in over whether he’ll start, but surely the answer is simple: How do you justify it if he doesn’t and Limerick lose by a point or two?
Tom Morrissey’s had a good summer but he’s the one most likely to lose his place after a fidgety performance against the Rebels that was shortened midway through the second half.
For them to take a side skirting about a handful of semi-final defeats, mount a late recovery and then go again to win the extra-time battle showed serious resolve.
Somehow you can’t see the psychological end of it bringing down a side that has carried itself all year like they belong here.
But there’s a difference in carrying yourself like you belong and actually belonging. It took Galway a long time to learn that themselves.
Thirteen of their squad had played in the losses to Kilkenny in 2012 and 2015 before they finally found a way to win last year. That it was against Waterford in the end, a side with no hex over them, made it that bit easier for Micheál Donoghue’s side to force the door open.
They were unquestionably the best side in the country last year, by a distance. They’re still the best side in the country individually - they’re just not playing as if they are.
Leinster was leisure. Kilkenny were never at the height suggested after their league success, while Wexford and Dublin have both failed to kick on. The drawn provincial final was the alarm sounding, and their replay performance suggested Galway had finally woken up.
If you switched off after the first 20 minutes of the games against Clare, you’d still think the same. But they lost two huge leads and struggled to adapt both days when the Banner made tactical adjustments in the heat of battle.
You can be sure it’s formed part of Limerick’s approach towards the final that there’ll be chances to recover even if they’re hit by a big start.
Gearoid McInerney is expected to be fit to slot back in at six, where Joseph Cooney so ably deputised in Thurles as they squirmed past gutsy Clare.
He’ll return to the half-forward division and the choice for Donoghue will be between Conor Cooney and Niall Burke, with the latter in pole position to retain his spot.
When you line the two teams up man-for-man and go on potential, you’d have Galway winning 9 or 10 of the individual battles.
But the champions aren’t playing to their potential, and that is the shaft of light that Limerick will look to let in.
They’ll go without an out-and-out sweeper and hope that their own attack has the pace and verve to justify the approach.
Aaron Gillane tormented Colm Spillane in the semi-final yet left two goals behind him. Graeme Mulcahy was brilliant in the first half, yet they weren’t feeding off the best of supply. It’s probable that John Hanbury will pick up Gillane, with Adrian Tuohy on Mulcahy and Daithi Burke minding the house from Seamus Flanagan.
Limerick could cause enough trouble inside but it’s whether they win enough ball to supply them. Galway’s half-back line has been superb over two seasons, with Pádraic Mannion finding a new level this year. If he gets on top of Gearoid Hegarty and Gearoid McInerney exerts his usual influence, the underdogs could find life tough.
At the other end, there’s the worry over what to do with Jonathan Glynn. He’ll have several inches over Mike Casey and Limerick will be forced to either rejig their defence or take a big chance on Casey dealing with it if Glynn works out of full-forward.
Seán Finn, having done an excellent job on Conor Lehane for a half before struggling when his man moved inside, will be tasked with the confident Conor Whelan, whose performance in Thurles was half the reason Galway got across the line at all.
If Galway hit the levels they can across 70 minutes, they’ll emerge with back-to-back All-Irelands no matter what Limerick bring to the party. That’s just the way it is.
But there’s no sense of guarantee about that the way there was this time last year. The door’s open for Limerick. What finer veneer could hurling’s greatest summer ask for?
Man of the moment
THERE were a few jibes on social media when he lined up to come on for Na Piarsaigh against Slaughtneil back in February. He wasn’t long silencing them, producing a stunning goal that will live long in the memory. That was the mark of his natural ability, and he’s got himself back in “the shape of his life”, in the words of former county captain Ollie Moran. His performance coming off the bench against Cork will go down in the annals of history if Limerick do go on to win Liam MacCarthy – but they won’t win it without a major impact from him. He made the call upon his manager to start him in the final during his pitchside post-match interview. Does he have 70 minutes in him is the question. If so, then he surely has to start.
Galway (probable): J Skehill; A Tuohy, Daithí Burke, J Hanbury; P Mannion, G McInerney, A Harte; J Coen, David Burke; J Cooney, J Canning, N Burke; C Whelan, J Glynn, C Mannion
HAVING togged out and taken part in a small bit of Galway’s warm-up before the replay against Clare, Gearoid McInerney is expected to be fit to resume his position at six. That will see Joseph Cooney, who deputised superbly, return to the forward division, and leaves Conor Cooney and Niall Burke in an arm wrestle for the sixth spot. Burke may just shade it having done that bit more in the replay win over Clare.
Limerick (probable): N Quaid; S Finn, M Casey, R English; D Byrnes, D Hannon, D Morrissey; D O’Donovan, C Lynch; G Hegarty, K Hayes, T Morrissey; A Gillane, S Flanagan, G Mulcahy
THERE is pressure on John Kiely to bring Shane Dowling in after the impact he made in carrying them across the line against Cork - yet he might hold that off. His defence and midfield will be unchanged, but up front it would be Tom Morrissey who would find himself under the greatest threat if Kiely does make the change. Otherwise it will be as you were.
Galway tactical take
THE big issue for Galway over the two games against Clare was that plan A worked, and plan B didn’t seem to exist. They hit the Banner with two blistering starts but the takeover in both games can be directly traced back to tactical changes by the opposition. Galway failed to adequately react to the sweeper going in at Croke Park, and then failed to counter the opposite move in Thurles. Both times they were lucky to escape. Limerick are unlikely to impose a sweeper on the game, with Gearoid McInerney likely to drop off as usual and Johnny Coen falling back. Whatever joy they get off Jonathan Glynn in the goalmouth could have the same major impact it’s had on their results to this point.
Limerick tactical take
AS much as everyone’s talking about whether they start Dowling, there’s an equally big question in defence - do they keep Mike Casey at full-back? On the first one, it’s a 50-50 call. And if he does, it could be at centre-half or full-forward, so Galway are likely to be kept guessing until close to throw-in. On Casey, he has been excellent at full-back all summer but he would be at a significant physical disadvantage against Jonathan Glynn, and getting that match-up wrong could be all that’s needed for havoc to be wreaked upon them. Richie English and Diarmuid Byrnes are the two most likely to go in there if a change is made, but they may give Casey the start of the game to see how it pans out.
Pádraic Mannion v Gearoid Hegarty
WHILE it’ll hardly be at the forefront of his motivations, Pádraic Mannion heads into the final one good game away from leaving himself in pole position to be named Hurler of the Year. His performances have been outstanding, whether in a man-marking sense or as the sweeper. Limerick won’t give him the opportunity to play as a spare man, so Micheál Donoghue is likely to ask him to shut down one of the Treaty’s primary ballwinners. Hegarty was outstanding in the first 50 minutes against Cork and the Na Piarsaigh man is a regular target for Nicky Quaid’s puckouts. There may be other more high-profile duels but whoever gets the better of this one will probably end up on the winning team.
THE clouds will sit overhead in Dublin but the hope is that they won’t open. It’s expected to be relatively mild at 21 degrees, and without any real significant wind, it could be close to a perfect afternoon for hurling.
Last championship meeting
2005 All-Ireland SHC qualifier: Limerick 2-14 Galway 1-18
DESPITE the fact that both sides were already assured of their progression to the last eight, the big prize on offer was avoiding Kilkenny at that stage.
Galway led by 1-9 to 0-6 at half-time but had to withstand a second half onslaught from the Treatymen, with Ger Farragher just doing enough to prevent Limerick from scoring a first win over a major hurling power since 2000.
Galway, thanks to Ger Farragher and Damien Hayes, led 0-6 to 0-2 before the latter capitalised on a weak clearance by goalkeeper Tim Houlihan to return the ball to the net.
It was a different Limerick at the start of the second half and inside three minutes they had opponents reeling as they stole ahead 2-7 to 1-9.
That lead was carved by the Ryan brothers Donie and TJ with Donie firing to the net following a delivery by Kirby, and then when he was later taken down, TJ netted from the penalty.
Farragher and Dave Tierney took the pressure off Galway to open a two-point lead but in a hectic battle for supremacy, Limerick were back level on 53 minutes when Paul O’Grady pointed to leave it 1-14 to 2-11.
With excitement at fever pitch, both teams exchanged points and were still level 1-17 to 2-14 before Farragher sent over the crucial point.
Last 10 Championship meetings
2005 All-Ireland SHC qualifier: Galway 1-18 Limerick 2-14
1981 All-Ireland SHC semi-final replay: Galway 4-16 Limerick 2-17
1981 All-Ireland SHC semi-final: Galway 1-8 Limerick 0-11
1980 All-Ireland SHC final: Galway 2-15 Limerick 3-9
1963 Munster SHC quarter-final: Limerick 3-9 Galway 2-7
1962 Munster SHC quarter-final: Limerick 2-13 Galway 2-7
1940 All-Ireland SHC semi-final: Limerick 3-5 Galway 0-5
1934 All-Ireland SHC semi-final: Limerick 4-4 Galway 2-4
1923 All-Ireland SHC final: Galway 7-3 Limerick 4-5
1922 All-Ireland SHC semi-final: Limerick 6-0 Galway 2-2
Who’s the ref?
James Owens (Wexford)
THANKFULLY the flames have died down a bit, but that’s not to say that James McGrath’s theatrics in resigning from the inter-county panel in protest won’t shine an unfairly heavy spotlight on Owens tomorrow. He was regarded in some quarters as a surprise appointment but doesn’t lack for experience. A clubman of Askamore in Wexford, it’s his second final after the 2015 final between Kilkenny and Galway. Owens has also refereed All-Ireland minor (2007), under-21 (2008) and club (2015) finals, and has been in the middle for each of these sides once this summer. Fergal Horgan, last year’s final referee, is on standby and Sean Cleere of Kilkenny is on the other line.
Galway (-2) 11/10
Draw (-2) 11/1
Limerick (+2) 5/6
Aaron Gillane 13/2
Conor Cooney 7/1
Shane Dowling 7/1
Man of the match
Adrian Tuohy 40/1
Cathal Mannion 16/1
Mike Casey 50/1