Antrim look to progress at Limerick's expense as Down seek survival against Offaly

Avoiding defeat against Limerick will put Antrim in the knockout stages of the All-Ireland Senior Championship while Down will be seeking to preserve their senior status when Offaly visit Liatroim on Saturday Picture: Sean Paul McKillop
Séamas McAleenan

Glen Dimplex All-Ireland Senior Championship

THREE separate issues will be sorted out by each one of the three games tomorrow in Group Two.

Not surprisingly the two Ulster sides are not in the running to finish first and second. Galway and Kilkenny were always in the frame for those two positions.

I have watched both of them in Dunloy over the past three weeks and Galway has been the more impressive in how they controlled play defensively and then got the runners through to support the forwards and take scores.

Kilkenny were impressive in the same regard for the first 15 minutes against Antrim, but once the Saffrons began to run at them, they were a lot more manageable.

Reigning All-Ireland champions Galway have not completed a two-in-a-row yet in the championship although they have taken two titles over the past three seasons. This management team probably wants to leave a legacy and part of that legacy has to be successive titles. The easier route to achieving that is to take top spot in the group and wait in the semi-finals while the cut-throat quarter-finals unfold.

Galway to win therefore and Kilkenny to finish second.

The third place will be fought out by Antrim and Limerick, with the visitors to Corrigan Park only needing a draw to progress.

Limerick hadn't won a single game all year until they beat Offaly three weeks ago by 0-11 to 0-9. They were relegated to Division Two of the league and destined to meet Antrim next spring at some point.

The Shannonsiders followed up that Offaly win last weekend with a 2-11 to 0-12 victory over Down after falling behind by nine points in the first half. Caoimhe Costello scored everything for them, bar the last point – and most of those scores came from frees.

Antrim conceded 20 frees to Galway over the hour last Saturday and that will be something they will have to watch against a team that relies heavily on accuracy from the placed-ball.

Defensively Limerick fared well in curtailing the threat of Niamh Mallon last week. Antrim arguably pose a more diverse range of scorers than Down while I would expect the Saffron defence to set up differently than they have done so in the past two games.

Because of the threat posed by both Kilkenny and Galway going forward, Antrim employed a sweeper in both halves of those games. I suspect the sweeper will be abandoned against Limerick unless there is another gale-force wind as there was last Saturday.

Players such as Róisín McCormick and Catirin Dobbin will pose a lot of problems for Limerick's defence with their pace, but the real danger comes from breaking the line and taking a score as Áine Magill and Lucia McNaughton can execute running from deep.

I am tilting in favour of a home win and the first appearance by an Ulster side in the senior quarter-finals since 1999.

Down, by virtue of that five-points defeat in Cappamore last week, find themselves in relegation bother. It's déja vu in the sense that they were beaten by Offaly in a relegation play-off last year, but survived by getting a second bite of the cherry and beating Westmeath. Then a couple of months ago they beat Offaly in Liatroim to avoid having a relegation play-off with Limerick in the Division One league.

The stakes are high in this one as the team likely to finish at the bottom of Group One looks to be stronger than either of the combatants in Liatroim.

Down, though, go into the game with a slight advantage gained from a draw against Antrim a month ago in Ballycran. They need to avoid defeat to survive.

Offaly need a victory to put Down in trouble. That is very possible with Susan Earner's crew as they have gone to the edge a few times over the past few years and avoided the drop by pulling off a victory late in the campaign.

The league relegation play-off victory has been their only win of the season and the championship got off to a bad start with a thrashing from Antrim. However, their recent games against both Kilkenny and Galway have seen creditable performances and the Limerick game was a close call.

Fingers are crossed that Niamh Mallon will be fit to take her place; the Portaferry scoring ace suffered a bad shoulder injury last week in Limerick and hasn't trained all week.

Regulars Aoife Keown and Caitriona Caldwell have been missing from the Down team since the Ulster championship. Both came on as late substitutions against Limerick and management is hopeful that they can get a little more on-field time out of the Castlewellan pair in this key fixture.

2-11 was not a huge scoreline against them in Limerick; the problem really was the number of frees that they conceded for Caoimhe Costello to point.

This should be a closely-fought game with a little more pressure on Offaly to chase the result. If Down are patient and exploit the gaps, they can ensure a third successive season in the top flight.

Group One

CORK have already qualified for the semi-finals and may want to give panel members game time, but they will be in no mood to do Tipperary any favours.

Their neighbours to the north have been semi-final fixtures for a few years now and even knocking on the door for a place in the final last year. However their form to date has been poor with a defeat by Waterford in Thurles and two draws in their opening three games.

A late comeback a fortnight ago against Wexford saw them steal a single point victory. But that is not the kind of performance that should trouble Cork, even if the Lee-siders decide to try out a few of the substitutes.

Waterford and Dublin therefore can be sure that if they avoid defeat they will be in the quarter-finals in a couple of weeks. However both have very difficult games ahead of them.

During May Clare were the form team, beating Tipperary and then taking Cork to two periods of extra time in the Munster final. They then drew with Tipp in the opening group game of the championship.

But it hasn't exactly gone so well since. Cork beat them by 12 points and they then lost to Wexford before surrendering a five points' lead in the closing stages of the Dublin game. They are now the only team that can't make the quarter-finals – but they could still record a morale-boosting victory over Waterford.

Dublin have made a lot of progress this term and defensively are very well organised. Their only loss has been to Cork, one that was expected, and they have a very good chance of making the quarter-finals.

But they have to travel to Wexford, a team that has not been consistent at all despite having beaten Antrim convincingly to take the Division Two league title.

I am predicting wins for Cork, Waterford and Dublin, which also would be the order they would finish in the group.

Group One (4pm)

Cork v Tipperary (Páirc Uí Rinn)

Clare v Waterford (Cusack Park)

Wexford v Dublin (Bellefield)

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