BY NIALL SHERRY, SPORTS EDITOR
Final berth awaits for winners
GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship
Semi-Final, Croke Park, Sunday, 4pm
Kilkenny vs Clare
This should be a cracker. Kilkenny and Clare rock up to Croke Park tomorrow knowing that a place in the All-Ireland hurling final is at stake, and both sides will feel that they want a final shot at getting their hands on the ‘big one’, Liam McCarthy. For Kilkenny, 2015 seems an eternity ago while The Banner has to look back two further years for their last championship title.
Sunday sees a repeat of last year’s last four encounter when Brian Cody’s Cats emerged 12-point winners. We wouldn’t say no to a similar outcome this weekend, but I have a feeling that the winning margin for either side won’t be as big this time round.
Brian Lohan’s side were on the road more recently than Sunday’s opponents as they narrowly missed out on a Munster title, going down, controversially to the Limerick machine by the smallest of margins. For me, Galway whistler Liam Gordon should have awarded Clare a free, right at the death, but the long whistle sounded instead. Having said that, Clare left an awful lot of scores behind them that day, and truth be told, should have been clear of John Kiely’s side long before the final whistle.
Losing that provincial decider saw The Banner face-off against Dublin two weeks ago, and they had far too much in the locker for the men from The Capital, running out winners by some 18-points. Clare won three and lost one of their four Munster games this year, defeat coming in their last group game to Tipp. The Banner have hit 14 goals in their 6 championship games to date and will no doubt look to test the Kilkenny rearguard and netminder Eoin Murphy on Sunday.
When you talk about Clare, you must start with Tony Kelly. The Ballyea clubman is to Clare what TJ Reid is to Kilkenny, a leader, a talisman, a warrior and a legend. In this year’s championship Kelly has been in fine form again, notching 5-32 to date and no defender will want to be given the job of limiting the talented forward’s influence on proceedings, unless you are Mikey Butler. The O’Loughlin’s man was outstanding man-marking form this time last year, keeping the irrepressible Kelly scoreless from play in a statement performance that went a long way to Butler being named Young Hurler of the Year and the recipient of a coveted All-Star award. The Cats need Mikey purring, in top form to repeat his heroics of 12 months ago.
Keeping Tony Kelly company in the scoring stakes for The Banner this season has been Aidan McCarthy. The Inagh-Kilnamona man has hit 1-27 in the championship, but missed the quarter-final win over Dublin through injury. Brian Lohan will be keen to see McCarthy return to his starting XV, along with the influential John Conlon and Shane O’Donnell who had to be replaced during the game last day out. Captain Conor Cleary and David McInerney also missed the Dublin game and the extended break should see them restored to health for Sunday’s semi-final against Kilkenny.
In midfield, David Fitzgerald has been the standout performer for Lohan’s side. The scorer of 0-4 last time out, the Inagh-Kilnamona player will relish the prospect of plying his trade on the Croke Park pitch. Fitzgerald and his normal engine room partner Cathal Malone will look to try and dominate the Cats in the middle third, and in doing so, ensure a supply of quality ball into the likes of Tony Kelly, Mark Rodgers and Shane O’Donnell.
Kilkenny manager Derek Lyng and his management team will have been trying to plan for Sunday’s game, with midfield very much to the fore. The absence of the pivotal Adrian Mullen has been a huge loss for the Cats, and Sunday might come just a little too soon for the Shamrocks Ballyhale man who sustained a rather nasty hand injury in the defeat to Wexford. Whichever duo gets the nod this weekend, will need to be prepared for the battle that lies ahead.
As referenced earlier, TJ Reid is still the main man for Kilkenny despite the years rolling on at what appears to be a rapid rate. TJ has come back into the inter-county scene after a Spring of rehabilitation and hit the ground running, looking like he’d never been away from duty in the black and amber. The Shamrocks legend has notched a hugely impressive 2-54 in championship this year and his placed-ball accuracy will be a crucial as ever come 4pm on Sunday.
It’s not only TJ’s scoring ability that makes him such an integral part of this Kilkenny side. It’s his selfless ability to do what’s right for the team, regardless of that takes him away from the opposition posts. Look at that crazy passage of play in the Leinster final when the Cats were behind and needed a goal. Who was the player chasing out to the corner of the pitch with 70 minutes already played – TJ. Without his pressure and involvement, who knows if the sliotar ever finds its way to Cillian Buckley for that magical major to be struck?
Even in the absence of Adrian Mullen, the Shamrocks Ballyhale imprint on this team is there for all to see. Captain Eoin Cody, TJ, Darragh Corcoran, Richie Reid all bring vital elements to this Kilkenny side. The same for the O’Loughlin’s contingent, Huw Lawlor, Mikey Butler and Paddy Deegan. There aren’t many better full-backs in the modern game than Lawlor. His class was there for all to see in the Leinster final victory over Henry’s Galway. In the same game, corner-back Butler’s Lung bursting run and calm finish to strike a vital major showed that there’s more to the little tiger’s game than pocketing the game’s best forwards. Paddy Deegan is Kilkenny’s Mr. Versatile. The tough, uncompromising player puts in a serious shift in whichever position he is asked to play in. Deegan’s steel will be required on Sunday, in all areas of the pitch.
Kilkenny’s half-back line has been getting much-deserved praise recently. Two-thirds of that line have been revelations under Derek Lyng. Bennettsbridge’s David Blanchfield and Shamrocks Darragh Corcoran have breathed new life into the side. Blanchfield’s fielding ability and all-action style is loved by fans and team mates alike, like Paddy Deegan, Blanchfield rarely takes a step back. Richie Reid would appear to be the natural No.6 to anchor the two wing-backs mentioned above. The former county captain has been missing due to concussion protocols, but hopefully will be fit for selection this weekend.
We had been expecting to see the return to the black and amber of Mikey Carey in the provincial final, but illness ruled the Young Ireland’s man out of the Bob O’Keefe decider. His availability will add much-needed quality to the Cats cause this weekend.
Captain Eoin Cody will look to lead the Clare defence a merry dance all over the Croke Park pitch and will look to continue his good recent form for his County. The Shamrocks Ballyhale man has a decent tally of 3-16 to his name and will hope to add a few more to this total on Sunday. Mossy Keoghan will hope to overcome his hamstring niggle to take his place in the starting XV. The Sash man nearly guarantees you a goal when he lines out! Mossy’s replacement in the win over Galway was Walter Walsh and the big Tullogher Rosbercon man showed the hurling world that he still has much to offer, notching 1-2 in an eye-catching display. Wally will be pushing for a start and it will be interesting to see what the management decide is the best fifteen to start against Brian Lohan’s men.
You sense that this game could explode and be a real classic. Getting to the All-Ireland final is the aim for both these sides. Who the opposition will be on that day is irrelevant at this stage. The planning for Limerick or Galway can start on Monday. Let’s beat The Banner and look forward to another opportunity to be reunited with Liam. Noreside is behind you boys.