It’s all to play for as we head into the final round of games in the Leinster and Munster championships while it is also crunch time in the Joe McDonagh Cup.
Ahead of the weekend’s fixtures, we take a look at the big questions facing the major teams involved.
1. Who will reach the Leinster final?
Galway look set for another Leinster final following their get-out-of-jail performance against Kilkenny last Sunday in Nowlan Park. That one-point victory resulted in a one-point lead at the top of the table and that could prove crucial as we head into the final weekend.
One of the most pleasing aspects must be the fact that they still have Joe Canning to return. A huge portion of criticism aimed towards them earlier this summer was their lack of leaders and scorers in the Portumna man’s absence but against the Cats, they had eight different names on the scoresheet with impressive performances from Cathal Mannion, Conor Whelan, and Brian Concannon. Unless both results go against them this weekend, they will be in another final and could well have Canning back for that crunch game.
Wexford will be still hopeful of a place in the provincial decider following their win over Carlow at the weekend. It was the first victory for Davy Fitzgerald’s side in the competition but crucially, their two previous draws mean that they are the only other unbeaten team apart from Galway in the competition. With the likes of Lee Chin and Conor McDonald back in full flow, they will have no fear of Kilkenny in Wexford Park on Saturday evening.
Of course, Dublin are also in the mix for a place in the decider and they will relish the thought of Mattie Kenny’s native county Galway coming to Parnell Park. However, they will not only need to win but rely on the result from Wexford to see them through to their first decider since 2014.
There are nine possible outcomes from this weekend’s results that journalist Denis Hurley has outlined.
2. Will Clare produce a response after poor performances?
The feeling prior to last Sunday was that Clare would go to the Gaelic Grounds with all guns blazing, firstly because they had played poorly the week previously against Tipperary, and also because they had a chance to knock the All Ireland champions out of the competition.
That didn’t transpire however as they fell to an 18-point defeat to Limerick. They appeared sluggish and leader-less on the field as major players such as Tony Kelly, Shane O’Donnell, and Colm Galvin failed to make an impact.
Despite their two heavy defeats in a row, Clare still have a fighting chance in the championship. The argument over whether or not that is a huge flaw in the round robin system will rumble on but the big question is will Clare grab that opportunity with both hands? They need to beat Cork in Cusack Park on Sunday which is a big ask on any given day but especially given the fortnight they have endured.
The Banner have come in for some major criticism over the past two weeks and you would imagine that more soul-searching than on-field training went on over the past couple of days. Going on current form, it’s hard to look past a Cork victory, especially since they have Patrick Horgan and Alan Cadogan firing from all cylinders and Clare’s defence have conceded a combined total of 4-49 against Tipperary and Limerick. However, we can always hope for a typical Munster classic between two traditional hurling powerhouses.
3. How will Limerick and Tipperary set-up?
On paper, this is the fixture of the weekend – the All Ireland champions against the best performing team in the championship so far. Tipperary are all but guaranteed a place in the Munster final following their three wins on the trot and Limerick will be hoping to join them as most of their panel have yet to win a Munster medal.
All eyes will be on the team sheets when they are named on Friday evening. The big question is whether or not Liam Sheedy will decide to inject some of the U21 players into the starting XV given that he may have to rely on them later in the season. However, Sheedy’s attitude following their win over Clare seemed to suggest that they are going all out in this fixture despite the fact that these teams will probably meet again in the Championship. Limerick are still the team to beat as the current holders of the Liam MacCarthy and Tipperary want to lay down a marker.
John Kiely has been ruthless in his selections so far, dropping Diarmuid Byrnes and Darragh O’Donovan for the game against Waterford as well as the exclusion of Dan Morrissey last week against Clare. William O’Donoghue has been a brilliant addition to their midfield while Paddy O’Loughlin has settled in seamlessly into their half-back line.
The potential match-ups are mouth-watering. Sean Finn, the most in-form defender in the country, marking John McGrath, Cathal Barrett potentially shadowing Aaron Gillane and a half-forward line of Dan McCormack, Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher and Jason Forde going toe-to-toe with Byrnes, Declan Hannon and O’Loughlin. Not to mention Ronan, Padraic and Brendan Maher attempting to handle Limerick’s most influential trio in their half-forward line.
It has all the makings of a classic and hurling fans will be hoping that this will be the game that sparks the Munster championship into life.
4. Can Offaly save their Joe McDonagh status?
Switching gears to the Joe McDonagh Cup and it’s crunch time for Offaly as they take on Kerry knowing that a loss will relegate them to the Christy Ring Cup. For a county with so much history and that were only in the Leinster Championship last year, that would be nothing short of a disaster.
It has been a turbulent season for the Faithful County following their drop to Division 2A of the Allianz League and their woes continued in the Joe McDonagh Cup with losses to Laois and Westmeath which culminated in the sacking of manager Kevin Martin last month.
It was a knee-jerk, temporary response in a last-ditch effort to turn their season around but Joachim Kelly’s introduction didn’t prevent a two-point loss to Antrim the following week.
Kerry’s season hasn’t been much better with only one win under their belt while they have been heavily reliant on free-taker Shane Conway for their scores.
It’s a winner takes all situation in Austin Stack Park on Saturday afternoon and with everything on the line, you would think that Offaly’s leaders such as Shane Dooley and Joe Bergin will drag their side through.
For Kerry, relegation to the Christy Ring Cup would be a major blow. But for a county who were in the All Ireland final in 2000, it would be unimaginable.