Limerick should be able to fend off Waterford again, but Cahill's team are plucky, liable to score goals, and will fancy the underdog's tag.
On-field this year, Limerick haven't encountered any problem that they couldn't comfortably negotiate. Rather, the major discomforts they've experienced have been off-field, in the form of injuries to Mike Casey and Richie English. Adaptations were made and the potential weak spots have, thus far, looked close enough to watertight. The question of how many more injuries Limerick could absorb hasn't even been raised, but the fullness of Gillane's health is unclear at the moment. Hospitalised after a titanic shoulder from Gearóid McInerney, Gillane may well be less than 100%, and he's also carrying a hand injury (from the summer's club championship) that required an operation. While he is very important to the team, Limerick have strong supporting options for the full-forward line, but potentially switching free-taker for the final would be unsettling, and a buoy to Waterford's spirits.
Jamie Barron against Dan Morrissey and Declan Hannon.
Waterford were easily the worst performing of the top-tier teams last year, yet they have a decent chance of winning on Sunday. Infused with players from the under-21 winning team of 2016, who know how to win, now nicely matured, they'll come in with no baggage, emboldened by the chance at hand. They have the look of a team still forming, finding out who their key guys are, and confidence will be rising after beating Kilkenny. They gave Clare such a hammering, and came back from nine points down to out-sprint Kilkenny down the straight, that any notion that this is simply a hot run of form can be dismissed, rather the conclusion is that they are a very good team.
For Waterford to clinch it, they'll have to score two more goals than Limerick, who are arguably a bit goal shy. By contrast, Waterford are a bit less predictable up front, with forwards who can be streaky, so it's entirely possible that they'll score the goals they need. Limerick will almost certainly score their usual high-tally of points, which every team would struggle to come close to, so the need for a couple of extra Waterford goals is the key to an upset.
Looking at the personnel, both goalkeepers are very solid, with Stephen O'Keeffe the more spectacular. In the full-back line, Limerick now look settled. Seán Finn is best-in-class, while Dan Morrissey has bedded-in at full-back with total ease. Morrissey will likely mark Austin Gleeson for a time; Gleeson found form against Kilkenny and will take close watching. Finn will probably pick up Stephen Bennett at some point, who is in the form of his life. Bennet would be a real challenge for Finn, and, given his form, it's hard to see him not having a good final. Barry Nash has grown into the corner-back detail and, potentially making Dessie Hutchinson, Nash will have to play well as Hutchinson operates as a conventional corner-forward, whereas Nash would prefer to drift out so as to liberate himself from the corner-back's role.
In the half-back line, we know what we'll get from Limerick. Both Diarmuid Byrnes and Kyle Hayes have looked impassable, while Hannon has had a quieter season, perhaps because the play has been down the wings. Jack Fagan will be a rangy challenge for one of the wing-backs, while Jack Prendergast is lightning quick and can cause problems with his incisive runs. The Waterford forwards will rotate: unsettling Limerick will be key, and Waterford are well placed to do that.
Cian Lynch against Jamie Barron.
In midfield, Will O'Donoghue is sensible and solid, an excellent team player. It's probable that Diarmuid O'Donovan will partner him but his form is hard to gauge. Waterford may tip the balance here: Jamie Barron is worth two men while Kieran Bennett (if he plays in midfield) is a skillful hurler who, after a quiet semi-final, could be one of those moderate players poised for a big game.
In the half-forward line, Gearóid Hegarty is in the running for player-of-the-year and will be a major challenge for Kevin Moran. Now posted at left half-back, Moran has been one of the best all-rounders of the past decade, but coming up against a fresh, up-and-comer like Hegarty has some potential for a mismatch in Limerick's favour. On the other wing, Tom Morrissey is at the top of his game and will take marking, but Calum Lyons will also have to be watched as he likes to streak forward. This could force Morrissey to mark him, which is of real value to Waterford as Morrissey would not be as free to drift out to create space inside. Cian Lynch is unconventional at centre-forward and likes to sprint through the middle, but that terrain may be congested, including by Tadhg de Búrca, Waterford's Everywhere Man.
Inside, whisperings over Gillane's fitness persist, and a partially-fit Gillane would likely struggle against Conor Prunty, who is physically developed and epitomises the energetic spirit of this Waterford team. Waterford's corner-backs are less-known quantities but looked good in the last two games, with plenty of athleticism and tenacity. Limerick's line out inside remains to be seen: Graeme Mulcahy was subdued against Kilkenny, Séamus Flanagan may have been started to detail Daithí Burke, and Peter Casey came on and played well. Regardless, the battles in the corners will be key, especially as Limerick's corner-forwards generally clock a good score.
Prediction: I fancy Limerick to get over the line, but this could be the first game of the year (for them) that strays from the script. The major risks for Limerick are Gillane's fitness and Nash marking his trickiest direct-opponent of the year (in Hutchinson). Conversely, these are the opportunities for Waterford. For Waterford to win, they'll have to score two goals more than Limerick. It wouldn't take a black swan event for Waterford to win, but I still fancy Limerick to hold out.
Thursday, 10 December, 11.30