Wednesday, July 17, 2024

GAA All-Ireland Hurling semi-finals: Neil McManus previews Clare vs Kilkenny and Limerick vs Cork

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For the third year in a row, these two counties face each other at the penultimate stage of the hurling championship.

Clare will feel they are well placed to avenge their 2022 and 2023 defeats. After losing the Munster final, they bounced back well against Wexford in the quarter-final, with Shane O’Donnell adding to his hurler of the year credentials.

Tony Kelly looked back to full fitness and shared the scoring burden with O’Donnell.

Kelly, of course, has been effectively man-marked by Kilkenny’s tough-as-nails All-Star corner-back Mikey Butler.

I reckon we will see that match-up again, but even if Kelly is kept quiet, Clare can draw upon a diverse group of scorers. David Fitzgerald pushing up to wing forward has not only added a puck-out option but also a huge scoring threat.

Peter Duggan on the other wing does not have the line-breaking athleticism of Fitzgerald, but can be a master of the skies and is capable of producing the extraordinary on any given day. With Mark Rodgers sandwiched between these twin towers, the half-forward line is stacked.

But Kilkenny will look to a sturdy defensive unit to stifle Clare’s danger men. Huw Lawlor is the best full-back in the game and will relish a battle on the edge of the square with O’Donnell.

The half-back line of David Blanchfield, Paddy Deegan and Richie Reid can all break forward to contribute on the scoreboard for the Cats. It will be intriguing to see if Mikey Carey’s positioning allows Reid to sit in the pocket and protect the inside line.

If Butler is deployed out the pitch, it may well be two on two inside, opening up the possibility of a goalfest.

Kilkenny don’t lack firepower, of course. With TJ Reid, the greatest player of all time, still pulling the strings, the Clare defence will be tested to the limit, with John Conlon possibly handed the task of shadowing Reid.

Completing Kilkenny’s hugely talented quartet are stars Adrian Mullen, who made his return with aplomb in the Leinster final, goal-getter Eoin Cody and the understated John Donnelly, who has been shooting the lights out all year.

Donnelly has been Kilkenny’s most consistent performer this season. Not only does he contribute significantly to the scoreboard, but his work rate makes him a fan favourite.

Having annihilated Dublin in the Leinster final, Kilkenny will go into Saturday’s semi-final as favourites. But I feel that with Clare’s improved strength in depth and tightened defence, it will be third time lucky for the Banner men this weekend.

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