Ok, let’s be honest about this. Predictions are a bit of a nonsense really aren’t they? Entertaining nonsense yes, but they really need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Now granted, I may be just saying that because my own forecasts have been so ridiculously awry this year but, to quote Sam Smith, I know I’m not the only one.
The great and the good of the hurling illuminati in this country, from Michael Duignan to Enda McEvoy and all in between, have played with fire this summer and got desperately burned. At the start of the season, RTE asked 6 hurling “experts” to guess the 4 semi-finalists at this stage of the season. 2 of them correctly predicted 3, 3 of them managed 2, and one had a solitary pick. Nobody managed to guess all four.
On saying that, could you blame them? At the beginning of the season, could you have expected that Waterford’s season would collapse in such a spectacular fashion? Or that Galway would go into their final group game knowing that only a defeat in their fixture, and a draw in the other would knock them out, and for that same outlandish scenario to happen? That Tipperary would storm their way through their opening 4 games and then collapse completely in their fifth? That Wexford would secure their first Leinster title in 15 years? That Laois would defeat Dublin? Well if you correctly anticipated all of those results, congratulations. Nostradamus is truly in the ha’penny place compared to you. But you’re definitely in a minority.
So it’s been a pretty unpredictable summer all round, and it’s not likely to get any easier from here on in. Let’s face it, once you get to this stage of this season, you may as well toss a coin. Last year’s semi-finals were decided by the width of a cigarette paper remember. Aaron Shanaher missed an inexplicable goal chance against Galway, Nickie Quaid made a similarly incredible save against Cork, and all of a sudden we had a Limerick Galway final on our hands. It could so easily have been a Cork Clare one though, and how would the narrative around both those sides have changed since?
As it is, Limerick edged through their prospective semi last year, then (just about) won the All-Ireland. Now they hold titles in all three major competitions for the first time since the 30’s. All sounds rosy in the garden then, but scrape beneath the surface of last year’s victory, and you’ll know there was more than a fair bit of good fortune involved.
How about this piece of luck for example? Last year Kilkenny were a point up in a quarter-final against this week’s opponents with 5 minutes to go, when John Donnelly came running through their defence only to be, pretty much, clotheslined by Mike Casey. No free was given and from that same play, the ball went up the other end of the field, Peter Casey pointed, and what should have been a 2 point deficit, was actually a drawn game. From then on in, Limerick outscored their rivals by 3 points to 1 for their first victory in the championship against their arch nemesis in 45 years. It could all have been so different though.
Now Limerick could argue that they were on top in that game, and would have won more comfortably if it wasn’t for Eoin Murphy’s heroics. There may be a grain of truth in that. There may also be something to take from the fact, that this side comfortably disposed of Kilkenny, at Nowlan Park, in this year’s league, while using a number of second string players to do so.
That’s all fine and dandy but it’s got to be added that that League game took place without the services of the Ballyhale contingent of TJ Reid, Adrien Mullen, Colin Fennelly and Joey Holden. Four pretty important members of the Kilkenny side I think you would have to agree. There was also no Richie Hogan, Cillian Buckley and their new, impressive full back Huw Lawlor. It fails to take into account too that, well, Kilkenny are pretty difficult to beat in the league, but they’re a damn sight more stubborn in the Championship. Even in the last 3 years, though the losses have been more frequent, they’ve never extended to a hammering. If there’s more than one score in this game come full time, I’ll be surprised.
There are chinks in the Kilkenny armour of course. The full back line was badly exposed the last day by the brilliance of Patrick Horgan and Alan Cadogan. They still could be a lot more efficient in taking their scores with some players, particularly say Richie Leahy, wayward in front of the posts. Then again, you can’t underestimate the confidence a win like last Sunday week would have given them and perhaps the luck that evaded them last year will drop their way this time.
Obviously Limerick have reason to be confident. The Munster final display was very impressive and they’ve got as good a full back line, if not better, than any other we’ve seen in hurling in recent seasons. Peter Casey was on fire last month and when you have the likes of Seamus Flanagan, Darragh O’Donovan and Shane Dowling to bring on, you’re in a pretty sweet position.
Then again, that game was 4 weeks ago and a month is a long time in the hurling world. Given their form over the past 18 months, you could argue that it’s not going to make much of a difference to this side, but these things add up. Look at the record of Munster Champions in All-Ireland semi-finals in recent years, and you’d be shocked at how poor it is. In fact, in the last 12 years of semi-finals featuring Munster Champions, they’ve won only 3. Only one of those sides (Tipperary in 2016) went on to win an All-Ireland final. So of course, Limerick have a good chance of winning on Saturday. But recent history suggests it’s not as good as everyone is making out.
Now compare and contrast with the opposition. Since Cody’s been in charge of Kilkenny his charges have appeared in 18 All-Ireland semi-finals. They’ve won 15 of them, drew one and lost just 2. The last one that he did lose was in 2005. So don’t tell me he’ll be spooked about the prospect of facing up to this Limerick side in a semi-final. On the contrary, he’ll revel in it.
Sure, perhaps on a player for player basis the treaty men have a slight edge, but consider how many Kilkenny players-Richie Hogan, Walter Walsh, Colin Fennelly et al-looked rejuvenated in their last fixture. We know Limerick completely blew away Tipperary in the Munster final, but then Tipp have been blown away numerous times over the years. Hell, Cody’s men have done it many a time. It’s always tempting to back the incumbent champions but, in a way, history is not on their side. Cody has a habit of upsetting the odds. Why not one more time?
PREDICTION: Kilkenny by 2