If Limerick are to be beaten this year, Galway are the only team who can do it, and they are strong in the right places.
Limerick have easily handled every team they've come up against. Clare shipped 36 points (the second highest tally of points ever scored in the championship) and lost by ten. Tipperary were handily beaten by nine points. And Waterford put up a credible fight but lost by four points. Limerick go about winning in a methodical, systematic fashion. There is no panic nor rushing, minimal fist-pumping—instead, there is control. This sense of calm and cool is exuded by their manager, John Kiely.
While the team is not immune to adaptation, with significant structural changes implemented for the Tipperary match in order to shore up the left side of the defense, there are pillars in place and ways of playing that we will see again on Sunday. Key among them will be securing a higher percentage of their own puc-outs than any other team. Intelligent running and support play around half-back and midfield, with refined stick passing and popped hand-passes that see Limerick build momentum as they attack. Wing-forwards who draw their markers out the field, and can score when opportunities arise, and an inside line that is well supplied with space in front of them and ball in it.
On the matter of the wing-forwards, Gearóid Hegarty is in player-of-the-year form and exerts major influence. It was notable in the Clare match that he drew very deep into his own midfield in an effort to pull the Clare wing-backs out but they sat back to protect their full-back line (clearly on the instructions of management). This is the kind of tactic that Galway will have to counteract. It's anecdotal, but Limerick didn't threaten the Clare goal in that match, rather they did the damage by racking up a huge points tally. The key point here is that Hegarty (and Tom Morrissey on the other wing) will drag the wing-backs out the field to create more space for their full-forward line, thereby creating a stay-or-follow conundrum for the wing-backs. Both wing-forwards are well able to score, so the half-back's gambit – choosing the lesser evil of either tracking their man or sitting back – needs to be carefully calculated.
Tom Morrissey and Gearóid McInerney
This invokes the critical issue of control. If a strategy is what you want to achieve and tactics are how you plan to achieve it, well, strategy in modern hurling has to pertain to gaining control over the game, and your tactics must speak to your strengths and the opponent's weaknesses. Limerick will try to gain control by creating space in front of their full-forward line, drawing the opposition half-back line out the field, and so on, and Galway will have to directly counteract these tactics. Happily for Galway, they are better positioned to do so than any other team.
Let's take a look at some of the specifics. In terms of personnel, Nickie Quid is eminently solid in goal and possession from his puc-out is the most secured in the game. At the other end, Eanna Murphy looks like he'll be a ten-year goalkeeper for Galway, something they could do with as this is a position that they have historically chopped and changed. Murphy was only centimetres away from successfully interrupting Richie Hogan for his genius goal in the Leinster final, looks very confident, and has the ability to find his man with precision.
In the full-back line for Limerick, Seán Finn is top class, Dan Morrissey is exceptionally strong and reliable (that said, he'd prefer to be on the wing), but Barry Nash is probably out of position and is the main reason why Hayes has been redeployed to wing-back. If Galway are to win, they will have to stress-test both Nash's corner and Morrissey's new berth. With Brian Concannon in good form and Conor Whelan flying, Galway have the capacity to probe, and I've a suspicion they'll upset Nash and Morrissey.
Limerick's half-back line looks imperious with the addition of Hayes, who attacked high-balls in the Munster final with more aggression than any wing-back in the modern game. Declan Hannon's cool head and incisive distribution is a known-known, while Diarmuid Byrnes is on top of his game. This is another line that Galway will simply have to disrupt, and they have the men to do it: Joe Canning and Cathal Mannion are lethal forwards who will be very keen to quieten Limerick's influential half-back line. Mannion looks to have that extra bit of verve about him this year, as if he has made his mind up to perform. Some might say that Canning has a score to settle with Hannon who picked two points from play off him in the first half of the 2018 All-Ireland final. Who'll complete the line remains to be seen, and Galway could do with Conor Cooney realizing his potential, but this battleground will be key both tactically and psychologically.
Graeme Mulcahy with Daithí Burke and Adrian Tuohey
In midfield, Cian Lynch is in his usual fine, creative form, while Will O'Donoghue is the steady hand who does the simple things and does them to perfection. Galway will probably lineout with Pádraic Mannion, a sublime hurler, and Johnny Coen. Personnel here may be fluid, and tipping the balance will be less important for Galway here than in the key battlegrounds of half-back and half-forward.
Galway will have to overpower Hegarty and Morrissey in the half-forward line. Joseph Cooney is an ideal physical match for Hegarty, and will have to be watched himself as he can score. Likewise, Fintan Burke is a good match for Morrissey. This isn't a Galway half-back line that'll easily allow terms to be dictated. Gearóid McInerney will be glad to mark David Reidy rather than Kyle Hayes, and holding the centre of the line will be his focus as the key battles rage on the flanks.
Inside, Gillane is in fine fettle but Daithí Burke will be champing at the bit to mark the best full-forward in the game, and I'd fancy Burke to edge it. Graeme Mulcahy could do some damage against Shane Cooney (if he starts in that corner), while tenacious Aidan Harte will put it up to Peter Casey. Harte isn't a natural corner back, but he should be able to adapt to it, and the derring-do he showed in scoring the winning goal against Tipperary suggests that he's in bould form and keen for a challenge.
On the line, Shane O'Neill will bring insider knowledge of Limerick to the table, and this isn't nothing. That said, Limerick have the best managerial set-up in the business, with Paul Kinnerk acting as the éminence grise behind the scenes; probably the greatest hurling coach of modern times.
Prediction: I fancy Limerick to pull through but this is arguably the most important match this team has faced. Win it and the All-Ireland final will be against lesser opposition, and Limerick will start to take on a veneer of invincibility for next year. Lose it, and it'll be connected to last year's semi-final loss to Kilkenny, with the implication that this Limerick team is beatable on a given day. Limerick by 2 points, but Galway are a significant team.
Friday, 27 November 2020, 11.30