Focus returns to the All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship this weekend as Croke Park hosts a pair of tantalising semi-final tussles in the race to raise the Liam McCarthy Cup.
Saturday evening will see defending champions Limerick squaring off against a Galway side still with their tails up despite some setbacks this summer. On Sunday afternoon, the Jones’ Road venue will pit Kilkenny against Clare.
The Hurling Championship has provided thrills and spills of epic proportions at every turn so far and this weekend is unlikely to veer from the norm.
GAA Preview 08/07/2023: Selections
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Limerick can topple wayward Tribesmen
– Live on RTE2/BBCNI
This is a clash between two sides that found their provincial journeys ending in contrasting fashion a month ago. Limerick edged out Clare by a point in Munster – a game that could have gone either way – while Galway snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in the Leinster decider against Kilkenny – the Tribesmen having themselves come back from an improbable second-half deficit to stand on the verge of glory.
Galway would have been entitled to carry the bruises of that agonising final-play-of-the-game loss, but they picked themselves up and edged out Tipperary to book a semi-final spot.
That game must serve as a worry on two counts though as they now stare down the best in the business. Tipperary’s starting full-forward line failed to score in the first half, while Galway’s poor execution resulted in 18 wides in the game and a hat-trick of goal opportunities spurned.
That sort of failing in front of the posts will surely be heavily punished by Limerick. Conor Whelan notched 1-04 in the win over Tipp and is the leading goalscorer in the championship with seven. His influence will be key but the overall Galway production line needs fine-tuning. They yielded only five scores from 16 shots during the final quarter against Tipp, and that won’t cut it against Limerick.
John Kiely’s champions have had a bruising season and perhaps haven’t hit the heights of previous times. Yet here they are, still standing – and that’s the worry for everyone else.
Talisman Aaron Gillane is firing on all cylinders and not for the first time in his career is in ‘hurler of the year’ territory. A positive outcome on Saturday could push him close to that personal gong.
When these sides clashed last year, Galway put intense focus on shackling Gillane but the Patrickswell ace still hit seven first-half points. How they deal with Gillane here will be pivotal.
This should be a battle for 70 minutes but Limerick have that ruthless, streetwise edge to them, whereas Henry Shefflin’s side have not reached that level so far. The All-Ireland champions aren’t ready to be dethroned yet.
Clare’s will may be too strong for Cats
– Live on RTE2/BBCNI
As with Galway, Clare have rebounded from provincial heartache to make the last four and a showdown with Kilkenny, the Cats looking for an All-Ireland Final appearance at the first attempt under new boss Derek Lyng.
Just as with the first semi-final, this is a repeat of 12 months ago. Then, Brian Cody’s Kilkenny came home strong winners by a dozen points, owing plenty to their ability to shut down Tony Kelly.
The Banner talisman is ticking over nicely now, with six points in the Munster final loss and 3-04 as they swatted aside Dublin since.
Mikey Butler was outstanding in marking Kelly 12 months ago and it could be another duel between the pair on Sunday. Simply put, Kelly has to shine. Clare as a unit are in a better place now to bring him support, but his is the outstanding contribution needed for ultimate victory.
Kilkenny have made a more than satisfactory transition from the Cody-Lyng eras this season. There will be confidence in their camp they can rubberstamp that by booking a place in the July 23 showpiece.
If, as expected, Limerick are already waiting there by the time this game throws in on Sunday, they may just find that Clare have the motivation needed to stop them.
Clare vs Limerick has been the rivalry that has defined this season so far. Part three of that trilogy would surely be the most fitting climax and the Banner are more than good enough to put it in place.