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Comment & Analysis | Sport

Hurling championship is getting tougher to predict

Kilkenny v Cork

IT’S been a week where hurling finally took a deep breath.

We’ve had our heads held under since the start of June, gasping for air as Dublin and Limerick have upset the favourites and the odds.

Six teams survive and each one has a legitimate shot at the All-Ireland title.

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As ever, one candidate commands more fear than the rest: Kilkenny.

We’ll only know for sure by Sunday at 4ish, but the decision to rescind Patrick Horgan’s red card for striking Limerick’s Paudie O’Brien on the head could be decisive.

Technically, referee James McGrath was justified in sending off the Rebels attacker against Limerick but, realistically, you know very little about the dynamics of hurling if you believe it was a straight red.

More crucially, the decision to free Horgan to play against Kilkenny means that one mistake has not been compounded by another.

Should Horgan play a blinder this weekend and be a key reason in the Cats’ elimination from the championship, then the latter will be men enough to accept it.

After all, Richie Power was given a second yellow card in the Leinster replay against Dublin for a slap on Peter Kelly’s head (as much, or as little, a straight red as Horgan’s), and there was no clamour for him to miss the qualifier with Tipperary a week later.

Power gave his usual fine display against the Premier and on rolled the Kilkenny juggernaut, same as ever.

Why do we think it wasn’t a red for Horgan?

A large reason being that there was no intent because he was, in this column’s opinion, going for the ball.

Watch it back again and you’ll see him stretching to get there, but the impediment caused by marker Stephen Walsh meant he could never quite get his hurl far enough across to the ball.

The result being that Horgan’s stick comes up short and flicks the back of O’Brien’s helmet. It was a foul; it was a yellow because we don’t want precedents set, but no more than that.

We don’t blame referee McGrath for telling the Cork man to hit the bricks, but the rescinding of the ban is proof positive that the decision was hasty.

Which brings us to the All-Ireland quarter-final against Brian Cody’s relentlessly ordinary, yet supremely obdurate, Kilkenny team.

Without Horgan, Jimmy Barry-Murphy would be without a tried-and-tested free-taker and, looking back on the league where each 1A team accrued about one-fifth of their scores through placed balls, it’s an area where you don’t want to come up short.

It’s hard enough to wrestle The Cats for the steak, without fumbling the free crumbs. A Cork team without their talisman would provide a comparable successor to what faced Kilkenny in Thurles last time out: Waterford without John Mullane.

Each heavyweight needs its heavy-hitter and if the Rebels can get enough ball into Horgan, they can win this game.

Already, their list of absentees includes their best playmaker in Paudie O’Sullivan and, when you consider that maybe half of their forward line was subdued against Limerick, the weight on Horgan’s shoulders is substantial.

Seamus Harney continued his good form in the Munster final and Pa Cronin was influential but all of Conor Lehane, Cian McCarthy and Luke O’Farrell will know they can produce more.

In Lehane’s and O’Farrell’s cases, that amounts to running at Kilkenny at every opportunity — if not them, perhaps Jamie Coughlan or hit-and-miss Cathal Naughton will get a chance to do just that.

No matter who plays up front, Cork have to build from the back as Waterford did, and as Tipperary didn’t, to win this game.

In his radio commentary for the Munster final, Clare boss Davy Fitzgerald spoke of how the Rebels are comfortable in working the ball out with short puck outs, as they had in the Munster semi-final against his side and then repeated for the Treaty clash.

Now while the game ended in defeat and a couple of these short balls out from Anthony Nash went awry near the end, let’s hold onto the baby in the absence of his bathwater.

To the brave go the spoils; to the afraid… well, they drive long balls on top of the Kilkenny half-back line. As we’ve said here before, any team erring in this manner deserves to be beaten well. Cork best not.

The Cats are raging against the light but the encouragement they will get from seeing Michael Fennelly grow into the qualifier against Waterford from his introduction in the 47th minute until the end of extra time is hard to quantify.

Not only that, but we expect him to be involved for longer against Cork, and in one of two positions that has caused some headaches for JBM. Brian Cody can choose to reinstall Fennelly to midfield in order to solve his own midfield headaches — the different Waterford centrefielders hit 0-7 — or put him at centre-forward to drive at the Rebels.

Cork have not quite nailed down the number six jersey in the last year or more, with question marks over whether Lorcan McLoughlin or Christopher Joyce are more suited to the task.

Earlier in the year, Cork gave Cronin a run at the position but Peter was being robbed far too much. The issue remains, as does midfield to a lesser degree, and in a defensive position that so many managers feel is the most vital of all.

It’s as tough to predict the weather as it is the final score-line but what may be a factor is the former.

Kilkenny’s two most recent championship games against Tipperary and Waterford were due to throw in at 7pm, though the latter was delayed somewhat on account of Clare v Wexford needing another 20 minutes.

This time, the Cats are faced with a 2pm throw-in and possibly the stifling heat that Cork endured during their 4pm fixture with Limerick in the Munster final.

Will Kilkenny finally run out of steam when the water is evaporating quicker than ever? How they drove on in extra time against Waterford suggests they have the gas, but it depends on how much Cork run them.

The Rebels must hurl with their heads, play it short, carry it, and hope their own huge absentee list from last year doesn’t founder them. It’s there for Cork, but Kilkenny just won’t die so there’ll be no such pronouncements of their demise until it actually happens.



Shane Stapleton is the Irish Post's GAA hurling columnist. Follow Shane on Twitter @shanesaint

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