We have arrived at a pivotal week in the Munster championship. In a short space of time, we have moved from Limerick’s four-in-a-row being a foregone conclusion to a match that is suddenly the litmus test of the champions’ whole season.
They underperformed against Waterford. The intensity against Clare was actually quite good if you look back at it and they lost by just a point but the key concern is that their scoring rate has diminished. The range of scoring potential is also reduced with Cian Lynch, Peter Casey and Gearóid Hegarty not as prolific to date.
This match will tell us a lot about Limerick. Tipperary have been fresh, energetic and revitalised with a number of interesting, young players like Alan Tynan in the middle of the field and Bryan O’Mara, who have added to the team but unfortunately for them, they are missing Jason Forde, who had been having his best year.
I still believe that Limerick can’t afford to be significantly less effective than they were against Clare and they don’t have Seán Finn, who would typically be marking Forde because of a season-ending injury and is their top defender.
Munster is so delicately balanced that if the teams come out, knowing that Cork have beaten Clare in Ennis, Limerick will have to win to stay in the championship.
Both matches are really exciting prospects and there is likely to be a huge attendance in Thurles and the biggest Tipp crowd that has been seen in 2023.
They will be in attendance because of growing faith in the team’s resurgence after the win in Ennis and even the draw in Cork, which they could have won. There have been flaws, most obviously the concession of seven goals in two matches and they were lucky not to concede a few more. That has to be a concern.
Having reviewed both games, it was hard to pinpoint any systemic errors that were causing this but such hospitable defending is a fact.
They have also picked up yellow cards, which is a danger but that vulnerability has been caused by pace, such as Ryan Taylor against Clare and Darragh Fitzgibbon in the Cork match running at the Tipperary defence.
That pace is not a feature of the Limerick game but hard running is and with Kyle Hayes, Hegarty, Tom Morrissey and Will O’Donoghue, it has been one of the difficulties that Tipperary have had with them in recent years as well as the damage done by their half-back line.
They have taken control from that line of the whole middle third, which led to the amazing turnaround in the 2021 Munster final and also the league semi-final last March. Having established that domination, they got scores from Byrnes, Hannon and Colin Coughlan in the absence of Kyle Hayes, who did such damage in 2021.
In both those cases, Tipp played into the wind in the second half and could not bypass the Limerick half-back line. Liam Cahill has to figure out a response to that — which Clare did — because his team just couldn’t win any ball in the key areas during the second half of that league semi-final.
It’s likely that the choice of Bonner Maher is designed for this purpose.
They had to face waves of attack, as opposed to the different threat of Cork, coming from the half-forward line rather than in stacked phalanxes from farther back, establishing the platform for Aaron Gillane and Séamus Flanagan to prosper.
Tipperary have been forceful around the middle of the field and scoring has been impressive, led by Jake Morris and with Mark Kehoe coming in and contributing.
Forde is a huge loss. At a minimum, he is a very reliable free-taker. Who will take over? Gearóid O’Connor has been a very successful free taker for UL and did well on the last day when thrust into it.
It’s a bigger deal to have to go out knowing you’re on the frees from the start. It will be a huge test for a young player if that’s the way it falls.
If Limerick’s problem is simply the lower conversion rate that John Kiely has acknowledged, that’s fixable. As well as that, the intensity of Clare-Limerick was higher than any other championship match this year.
So far they have exhibited vulnerability but they have too much in a match that unlike Tipp, they can’t afford to lose. In doing so, they can reset their whole championship.
Clare-Cork will set the agenda earlier in the afternoon but it’s also an interesting match in its own right. Clare have been good and although there was a fall-off in performance against Waterford they did what they had to do and were deserving winners in the end.
I’ve questioned whether Cusack Park is as big an advantage to Clare as it used to be. Tipp used their tight skills to win there and Brian Lohan’s men have won both of their away games. They’re a decent package and can do more in the championship.
It’s hard to call but Cork have typically done better than expected against Clare and have plenty going for them: pace, improved strength and good resilience against Tipperary.
There are flaws there and Robbie O’Flynn is a loss to them and a loss to the whole championship. He had worked so hard to get back from injury and there is a pace and excitement about how he plays.
Cork might be a bit fresher because they have played fewer matches but on balance, Clare are for me, that bit better.