Limerick powered-up on last year's hurt as mountainous rivals collide again
All-Ireland SHC semi-final: Galway v Limerick (tomorrow, 3.30pm, Croke Park, live on RTÉ2 & Sky Sports Mix)
LIKE the Wild Atlantic waves off the coastal edge of the two counties, the hurlers of Limerick and Galway will crash headlong into each other tomorrow afternoon, looking to see who can moves the other back an inch first.
You won't find Lukasz Kirszenstein's name on the teamsheet but the strength and conditioning coach's work with 2016 champions Tipperary, 2017 champions Galway and his earlier work with the U21 crop that backboned Limerick's success in 2018 has come to define an era.
Kirszenstein's work in Limerick was taken on by Joe O'Connor, who currently heads their S&C team, and highly-rated coach Paul Kinnerk.
In Tipperary last year, it was Belfast native Cairbre Ó Caireallain who joined up with Liam Sheedy's management and brought them to the top of the mountain.
The key was to look for big, lean men who were strong.
“It wasn't necessarily to have big players, but to better somebody's body composition in terms of their ratio of lean mass, or muscle mass, to fat, the better they're going to move on the pitch,” Ó Caireallain told this paper after last year's final.
“That was the key, we were looking for the players to be lean but have strength.”
A fascinating study by David Walsh in The Sunday Times last weekend showed that the average height and weight of All-Ireland teams had increased even since 2015.
The Kilkenny team of that year had eight players who measured over six foot, while Galway (2017) and Limerick (2018) had 13 and 11 players respectively over that mark.
Walsh also found that while the number of players weighing over 13 stone had increased, the average weight of the teams overall had decreased. That tells you that more players are hitting the optimum markers.
Hurling has little room left for the wee man. There aren't many Joe Deanes or even DJ Careys to be found.
No clash could emphasise it better. These two continue to set the benchmark physically.
In hurling terms, it seems as though Limerick just have the edge on everyone else. That's the same way it felt before last year's semi-final too, and look how that turned out.
Midfielder William O'Donoghue, a late sub in 2018 who has since established himself in a formidable pairing with Cian Lynch, spoke earlier this week about the way the defeat by Kilkenny at this stage in 2019 has affected their work this year, if not necessarily the specific approach to this game.
They were blown away at the start line by Kilkenny's ravenous approach that allowed them to build a 1-8 to 0-3 lead, just enough to hold on in a frenetic second half.
Quietly, though, on the back of failing in a quest for back-to-back All-Irelands, John Kiely's men have completed consecutive Allianz League and Munster titles.
Galway come to Croke Park having shouldered Tipperary out of their path, a result not hugely surprising given the recent close history, but impressive on the back of how they'd collapsed in the Leinster final a week earlier.
Midway through the second half they looked to be hitting their stride and pulling away from Kilkenny, but the introduction of Richie Hogan swung the game and the cup went home with its black and amber ribbons restored for the first time since 2015.
The ace in the Galway pack could be the intimate knowledge their manager Shane O'Neill has of Limerick. A native of the city, he managed his own Na Piarsaigh to an historic All-Ireland club title. No fewer than seven of his clubmates are on the Treaty panel.
It's one thing knowing how they tick and another thing pulling the batteries out.
Their inside forward line of Aaron Gillane (1-5), Graeme Mulcahy (0-8) and Peter Casey (0-7) have put up 1-20 from play in their three-game run to the Munster title, which included impressive wins over Clare and Tipperary before the tighter decider against Waterford.
Daithí Burke remains the sport's premier full-back and his battle with Gillane, who won the duel in the 2018 decider, when he fetched a series of balls in the air only to lose his hurl on two great goal chances.
Padraic Mannion will drop back to supplement their defence and may be asked to specifically guard against that threat.
Galway have been using Joe Canning in a much deeper role this year and while they have lightning pace in the shape of Conor Whelan and Brian Concannon inside, finding avenues to them is the issue against a deep-lying Limerick half-back line.
The final of two years ago was, for 55 minutes, a wholly one-sided affair that Limerick only almost lost out of not knowing how to deal with being so close to winning. They've learnt that lesson plenty since.
Limerick have been irrepressible for three years now, barring that sole afternoon against Kilkenny last year. Beaten can happen, but outworked hurts far more.
You can only imagine them bringing that pain to Dublin tomorrow afternoon, and inflicting it on Galway.
Daithi Burke v Aaron Gillane
GILLANE was only really beginning to prove himself in the summer of 2018 and it was with his scintillating display in the All-Ireland final that he became a household name. Daithi Burke has been the game's best full-back of recent times, winning three consecutive Allstars from the position between 2016 and 2018. A vital cog in Corofin's all-conquering football team as well, he faces one of the biggest challenges of his career against an opponent whose aerial ability, pace and strength have turned him into a top-of-the-range full-forward.