Now or never for Galway as they face Limerick for All-Ireland final place

Manager Henry Shefflin will know that tomorrow's match makes or breaks his side's year.
Manager Henry Shefflin will know that tomorrow's match makes or breaks his side's year.

All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship semi-final

Limerick v Galway (Saturday, Croke Park, 6pm)

THE tumbleweed drifts around Jones’ Road. Dr Phil claims the best piece of advice he ever got was from his father: “Never miss a good opportunity to keep your mouth shut”. Kilkenny, Clare, Galway, and Limerick have certainly heeded those wise words.

So much so that the All-Ireland semi-final weekend feels like a matter of procedure. The week gone by has been like a minute’s silence that forgot his stopwatch. Even by GAA standards, the silence is deafening.

The crowds in Croker may well suffer as a result, particularly Sunday’s meeting of Kilkenny and Clare. It is anticipated there will be less than 60,000 in attendance for the eagerly-awaited clash of John Kiely and Henry Shefflin.

The media seem to be focussed on Limerick, wondering where they are at. Five provincial titles in a row, and on track for four Liam McCarthy’s on the bounce, but the talk is of regression, and that Galway have closed the gap.

The Tribesmen have been up and down like a see-saw. They have lost the last three meetings between the sides, albeit by a maximum of three points. At this stage in 2022, they were all over the holders like a rash, yet went in 0-16 to 0-12 down at half-time, with as many strikes wide. 

And then, in typical Galway fashion, Brian Concannon’s goal out of nothing drew them level in the second half. Ultimately, Limerick’s bench saw them through, with David Reidy’s 0-3 crucial, but it was a huge opportunity lost for Galway.

This year, it will likely be tight again, but that is dependent on Galway. The draw with Dublin was a blueprint for how to throw away a game, while the last day out against Tipp’, an eight-point lead was whittled down to two.

And then there is the Leinster final. It was a crazy game, where neither side seemed to want to take control, right until the end. Make no mistake about it, however, Limerick would not have lost that game. 

What gives Galway hope is the absentees in Limerick’s backline, along with Conor Whelan’s red-hot form. Declan Hannon has been ever present, along with 2021 Hurler of the Year nominee Seán Finn. 

The 6 slot is particularly complicated, with Limerick having too many options, if anything. Cian Lynch’s apparent return to fitness sees him slot in at centre-forward, with Kyle Hayes shifting to centre-back, and Gearóid Hegarty filling Hayes’ boots at wing-back.

Daithí Burke, who has predominantly played at centre-back this year, retreats into the three jersey, in an apparent effort to curb the influence of Aaron Gillane. Gillane hit 0-6 from play last year, and is the current favourite for Hurler of the Year.

In last year’s clash, Galway dropped Cathal Mannion back as an extra man early on, but it immediately backfired. Limerick’s strongest line is arguably their half-back line, and Diarmuid Byrnes in particular was left to pick out Gillane at will. 

Galway will not be so foolish this time, and they will be determined to test an injury-hampered Treaty. Evan Niland, top scorer in this year’s Championship, may well sit in as a traditional centre-forward, in an effort to leave Kyle Hayes facing his own goals.

The likes of Tom Monaghan, Jason Flynn, and Conor Cooney also leave their bench much stronger than in 2022. Indeed, the Galway bench has accounted for an impressive 4-16 to date.

Much of the game will boil down to the mercurial Cian Lynch. If Galway can limit Gillane, Burke may well drift out towards the centre-forward. That would be a fascinating battle, with the Corofin footballer’s driving runs so key for Henry Shefflin’s charges this year.

Regardless of whether Burke plays at three or six, the Galway midfield will need to work like trojans to get numbers around Lynch. He hasn’t got a huge pile of game time under his belt, having last started on May 21.

At the other end, William O’Donoghue will be eager to double up with Hayes and ruffle the feathers of Niland. Galway simply need something else from play. If (1) Burke ends up preoccupied with an in-form Gillane, (2) Galway’s centre-forward is shut out of the game, and (3) the midfield are tied up tracking back, they may well struggle for an outlet.

Limerick are more than capable of dealing with these absentees. They’ve lost Lynch in the past, while Séamus Flanagan is a man who is due a big performance. Despite the absences of Hannon and Finn, their concession rate is actually down this year compared to last.

Galway will have learned a lot from last year, and they are more than capable of winning this match. If they do show up, this will go down to the wire again.

But that’s just how Limerick like it. That’s where champions come into their own, and that’s exactly what this Treaty side are. 

A tense, frenetic final 10 minutes, but death, taxes, and Limerick to close out a win, by hook or by crook.