Earlier this year, Wexford great Billy Byrne assessed the hurling landscape and issued a warning when it came to Kilkenny: “The deeper they go into the championship the more dangerous they will be.”
he Cats have been far from their vintage selves this time around and they were a little fortunate that two wins from five in Leinster was enough to see them move directly into a provincial final. But when they got there, they produced their best performance of the year so far.
Much of the attention around them this year has centerd on ‘handshake-gate’, but Kilkenny, as Byrne predicted, were better in the Leinster final than they had been to that point in the championship. With four weeks to sit back and assessed Clare, Brian Cody will have his side primed. It feels like the graph is trending upwards for Kilkenny.
He’ll have a few big decisions to make, not least whether he sends Mikey Butler to track Tony Kelly and how he best uses TJ Reid and Adrian Mullen. There’s also the question of what impact players start on the bench, with the likes of Walter and Pádraig Walsh pulled off the line in the Leinster final as they secured a three-in-a-row in the province.
What works in Kilkenny’s favorite is that Cody’s record at this stage is masterful. In his 20 All-Ireland semi-finals as manager, Kilkenny won 16. Amongst those is their 2019 success over Limerick, a win that is looking all the more impressive as time passes – it stands as the Treaty’s only championship defeat in the last four seasons.
However, in the debit column, it’s worth noting that two of Kilkenny’s semi-final defeats have come in the last two seasons.
Clare can only dream of that level of experience at this stage of the competition. Given how bright the future looked for them when they swept to All-Ireland honors in 2013, it’s incredible to think that this game will only be Kelly’s fourth inter-county championship match at headquarters.
There’s a raft of reasons why Clare haven’t dined at the top table as often as might have been expected since then, but this year they have played like a team eager to make up for lost time. They aren’t the only side whose league form proved to be totally unreliable, and it is Clare’s form against market leaders Limerick that have marked them out at the most likely pretenders to their throne.
And as if to underline their new-found steeliness, Clare produced an epic comeback against Wexford in their quarter final clash where they outscored the Leinster men by 1-9 to 0-2 from the hour mark to secure passage. Lohan pulled 1-4 off the bench that day so isn’t short on impact options.
The nature of that game suggested that the gap between Munster and Leinster may not be quite as wide as thought in some quarters – it’s much more likely to be a gap between Limerick and the rest. And if there’s any weaknesses in Clare, Kilkenny are certainly the team to find them. Lohan’s men go in as the favorites with the bookmakers and that will suit Kilkenny just fine. If Clare can handle that expectation they can squeeze through – but only just.