Tipperary Supporters Club

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Co. Tipperary

Liam Sheedy: The big question facing each county in the Munster minefield

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Source: Irish Examiner

t’s right upon us, the kind of hurling weekend we crave. The kind of steamy Sunday that draws in more than hurling people. The cut and thrust of championship. There will be no more talk of shadowboxing or of a raft of changes before the ball is thrown in. This is business time.

The whole country is waiting for Clare v Limerick. A full house, hopefully the mercury rising in line with the action. Fierce rivals, neighbouring counties with many houses split down the middle. A first step towards immortality for Limerick, Clare with their own big ambitions. Roll on 2 o'clock on Sunday.

Until Leinster gives us a plot twist, the focus will inevitably be on the Munster action. And each of the contenders has a question or two to answer. Even the four-in-a-row All-Ireland champs.

Can Limerick cope with the mental test?

John Kiely has a few smaller worries he doesn’t mind sharing with us. Leaking six goals in the latter stages of the league upset him, he freely admitted. Limerick pride themselves on that clean, tight defensive setup. With all personnel back and firing, you expect cobwebs to be swept aside and a return to the meanness that saw them concede just three goals in five Munster outings last year.

I pay little heed to their league semi-final no-show. Remember they were unbeaten in the 11 league games prior. They have had four weeks to prep for Ennis and will need a big performance to deny a strong, athletic and connected Clare team.

John will prefer not to dwell, publicly anyway, on the bigger challenge, the size of the mental test when you are chasing immortality. They will talk about going game to game but Limerick’s players will be well aware the biggest threat to their place at the very top of hurling’s annals arguably lies in the coming weeks in Munster. Nobody will make it easy for them.  

This is when the absence of Caroline Currid could impact them. I know they have a strong backroom team and have made additions. But Caroline was with them for all five All-Ireland victories. She has seen them through highs and lows. Times when everyone is praising them to the hilt and the odd occasion when disappointment or controversy clouds their horizon. She has been the calming influence when the pressure rises and it will rise at some stage this summer.

That precious ability to stay level doesn’t just apply to the men on the field. When Tipp rattled Limerick in the first half of their league semi-final last year, I was right behind John Kiely. He got angsty, distracted, a bit cross, caught up in discussions with officials. The focus seemed off. At the blow of the half-time whistle, Caroline was straight out to his side and walked every step with him to the tunnel. In the second half, John was back in the zone, back fully connected to his players.

Can Clare get a handle on their own ball?

You could nearly feel a bit sorry for Clare after the league final in Semple Stadium. There was pure joy in their thousands of supporters out on the field, but among the players everything was muted, Conor Cleary’s acceptance speech setting the tone. There was almost a reluctance to celebrate and nobody in the camp was making any bold statements afterwards.

This group has a burning ambition to land Munster and All-Ireland trophies and during that league final you could still detect an edginess because they are not yet where they want to be. Their stickwork was nervous in the first half and they almost coughed up what looked an unassailable lead.

But they eventually got it done in Thurles and that should be a monkey off their backs. Silverware can have a miraculous way of releasing another level in even the best players.

Clare’s big challenge is on restarts. They are organised and forceful closing down the opposition puckout, but must go to a new level on their own. They were cleaned for long periods of the first half the last day.

I wouldn’t blame Eibhear for that. He needs to look up and be presented with more movement and options. This Clare team is hugely exciting on the front foot and if they can get their hands on the ball inside the 65 then Rodgers, O’Donnell and Fitzgerald will take you on and hurt you.

I would not underestimate the absence of Tony Kelly and Ryan Taylor on Sunday. They have been outstanding against Limerick and can cover acres as well as take scores. If they halt the Limerick juggernaut without these two, it’s a serious register on the depthfinder and a massive statement of intent.

Have Cork anybody to mind the house?

That Cork failed to qualify last year, despite green shoots of progress, just underlines the treacherous nature of this great Munster format. After a stuttering league start, Pat Ryan’s side have again found some rhythm.

Yet the big challenge is age-old. While they know their centre back, they still have no out-and-out number 3. Cleary for Clare, Morrissey for Limerick, set the tone. Damien Cahalane will probably be asked to do likewise, but I see him as much happier on the wing, driving forward.

The return to the wing of Mark Coleman will give them a big lift. And Darragh Fitzgibbon gives them so much when he’s on song. But stinging questions linger over the frontline when the need is greatest. Have they the leaders to deliver? Numbers 10 to 15 have to stand up and be counted in 2024 in terms of winning dirty ball and putting on the overalls.

Harnedy has led that line for years. Hoggie will be Hoggie. But can the other four as well as three or four more coming in step up and stand up? Another failure to qualify would present a serious setback for the group.

Can Waterford get the heads right?

Every team likes a flight under the radar. And Waterford certainly have that much going for them. Even their own appear to be doubting them. The county’s round robin return is abysmal. Something about this group misplaces that inner belief when the hottest pressure comes on.

Of course they can use all that external noise. Being written off has sparked many a team into life. And no better man than Davy to harness that kind of motivation. But I think it’s now more about the Waterford players looking inside rather than around them. It’s high time to stand up and be counted.

It’s too easy to criticise management and quibble about tactics. Waterford’s issues aren’t around skill or pace. They are blessed with quality that would make any team in the country. But have they got it from the shoulders up? No group wants that stigma lingering over them. The road ahead is arduous, but I don’t see the Déise rolling over.

Do Tipperary know their best 15?

The luxury of a weekend to watch and learn might look different by the time they face into the champions’ backyard next week. Limerick will either be stung or buoyed. Either way, they’ll have some creases ironed.

Liam and his management team spent the league folding his own lineup into different shapes. The big challenge now is getting his best players into their best positions.

The prevailing wisdom has always been that you have 10 or 12 positions nailed before championship. Has Liam? He has chopped and changed from goalie to the inside forward line. A competition within Tipp to name the starting 15 in their positions for Sunday would bring some variety of answers.

Tipp have talent in that group. The return of Cathal Barrett would be a boost as it would free up Bryan O’Mara to the half line where he is much more dynamic.

They have become over-reliant on Jason Forde and Jake Morris up front. Others must stand up to win ball and contribute on the scoreboard. A fit Mark Kehoe and fresh Gearóid O’Connor must make big impacts.

Liam and Mikey have proven ability to get their teams primed for big day performances. They have had five weeks to prepare and will bring a gameplan. The players will need to bring the energy to get them to the same peak as last year where they went toe to toe with Limerick down the home straight. That will take a 20-man effort.

A performance will be important before they head to Walsh Park six days later for what could be a season-defining game for both teams.

An early decider in Leinster?

It’s inevitable Munster hogs the opening weekend limelight. Kilkenny and Galway face lesser opposition first day out and are more or less assured to stand in hurling’s final six in a couple of months’ time.

Dublin’s visit to Wexford this week has been billed as an early decider for the third spot and you wouldn’t rule out an away win, with the Dubs’ recent record in this fixture.

But I can see one or two twists. Antrim will strip much healthier than they did in the league with the bulk of their players back on the pitch. Wexford’s visit to Corrigan Park in round 2 looks sticky. It’s hard to read their formline when you see Carlow badly beaten by Laois in the 2A final. But if they regain the momentum that saw them win the Joe Mac last year they are also capable of causing an upset at home.

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