We are down to the last four teams in the Allianz Hurling League with Galway, Waterford, Limerick and Dublin doing battle this weekend to decide the 2019 finalists.
All four teams will fancy their chances of making it to the final after impressive displays throughout the group stages, and in the quarter-finals.
The semi-finals are almost too close to call and so we take a look at some of the questions hanging over each of the teams that could prove crucial during Sunday’s double-header in Nowlan Park.
1. Can Limerick make it to their first League final since 2006?
Limerick have been treading the line throughout this campaign between wanting to make a statement on the back of their All Ireland win while also attempting to manage expectations ahead of the championship. It’s 22 years since the Treaty men were last crowned Allianz League champions and 13 years since they were in a final.
A national title would dispel any thoughts that this young Limerick side are suffering a hangover from last August’s All Ireland win. They blazed through their first rounds against Wexford, Tipperary, and Kilkenny, and the narrative was that no team would be able to stop the champions. A narrative which Cork tore to shreds the following week by fronting up to Limerick and playing them at their own game.
The hard-fought draw against Clare was no surprise. Limerick struggle against the Banner set-up, especially in a cauldron like Cusack Park. The hammering of Laois was also to be expected but now that they have returned to winning ways, what mentality will they carry to Nowlan Park on Sunday? They have had two weeks to prepare and regardless of what is said, a loss in the semi-final stage would be a huge blow for John Kiely’s men. The aim has been a League final but it will be far from an easy task to get there.
2. Will Dublin provide an upset?
Yes, a win for Dublin at the weekend would be an upset. Limerick are heavy favourites, especially considering they are almost back to full strength with the return of Mike Casey from injury. However, many are still underestimating the capabilities of Dublin, even after their quarter-final win over Tipperary last weekend.
That was Dublin’s first competitive win against the Premier County in Semple Stadium since 1997. During that game they out-worked, out-classed, and out-thought their opponents. Tipperary were poor on the day, registering 18 wides but that is to take nothing away from Dublin’s performance. Eamon Dillion was outstanding, Oisin O’Rourke was, once again, very bright and Chris Crummey looked almost back to his best.
Let us not forget that this is a team who topped Division 1B, ahead of Waterford and Galway. They haven’t tasted silverware since the Allianz League in 2011 and they will entirely back themselves to reach another decider this year, regardless of their ‘underdog’ tag. With the team flying high at the moment, as well as a number of high profile players to return, there’s no reason why Dublin won’t seriously challenge Limerick on Sunday and carry that form into the Leinster championship.
3. Can Galway exact revenge for earlier Division 1B loss?
Make no mistake, Galway still have a point to prove in this League campaign. They may have only suffered one loss during the group stages but they will feel as though there are still question marks over this team. Micheál Donoghue’s side recorded a 10-point victory over Wexford in the quarter-final but major factors in that was Wexford’s lack of discipline, with Joe Canning registering 13 frees, and the Model county utterly collapsed in the second half, allowing Galway to overturn the half-time deficit.
Galway versus Waterford has always been an intriguing fixture in recent years but since the Deise have decided to forgo their sweeper system, it has added another dimension to the conversation in terms of how the teams will match up against each other.
Galway remain without their St Thomas’ and Corofin contingent and in their absence, their reliance on Joe Canning has increased once again. It remains to be seen as to what role he will take up on Sunday but no doubt, he will have a major influence on the result. Galway are slight favourites going into the game with many expecting them to cancel out their earlier loss to Waterford in the campaign but with questions still remaining and Waterford playing with confidence, another win for the Deise looks to be on the cards.
4. Are Waterford too reliant on the Bennett brothers?
One of the most enjoyable aspects of Waterford’s play this year has been the performances of the Bennett brothers, Shane and Stephen. The duo have run riot in the full-forward line throughout the campaign with Stephen, in particular, racking up huge scores. The 23-year-old has registered 3-69 so far in the League while Shane has chipped in with 3-5.
They are deadly in front of goal and Stephen will punish any team for ill-discipline with his laser accuracy. However, all hurlers experience ‘off-days’ and should either Bennett brother fail to fire on the day, how would Waterford cope?
Austin Gleeson scored o-5 against Clare in the quarter-final but and the Mount Sion man is improving with every game under his belt, although he is still off his 2016 best. It will be interesting to see how he is utilised against Galway and whether he will slot into a scoring role among the forwards or roam the field as a creator. Galway are no stranger to dealing with his capabilities but should their focus be on the Bennett brothers this weekend, it may create more space for Austin Gleeson to work his magic.