Could Saturday night’s meeting of Limerick and Waterford at TUS Gaelic Grounds be the first of three championship meetings between the counties this season?
Going in as favourites against Cork and Tipperary last week, the respective All-Ireland and league champions were asked some questions, of varying degrees of difficulty, but ultimately the pair had enough answers to come through win victories.
It means that whoever wins at the Ennis Road venue will be all but assured of a knockout spot and in good shape for a place in the Munster final – though there’s nothing stopping the beaten side making it there again. Of course, both will have their sights set on the biggest prize.
With Waterford’s league win – and then the way they battled back from a slow start against Tipp – underlining their status as the closest challengers to Limerick, the Shannonsiders’ manager John Kiely is expecting a tough battle on Saturday (7pm).
“It’s going to demand a lot of energy; that’s for sure,” he said.
“They’ve been hip-to-hip with us now for a couple of years. They’re a fine side. We’ve great respect for them as a group. The onus is on us within our group is to bring the greatest amount of energy we can next Saturday evening and to look for further improvement.
“We had 17 wides against Cork and that’s too high. We have to be more efficient in our shooting. There’s a piece to go after there this week. There are a few line breaks we have to go back and look at again to make sure they don’t happen again.
“We turned over a few balls because we didn’t make the right decision so the decision-making has to sharpen up.
“Hopefully the game today will bring that on; our decision making will improve and our shooting efficiency will improve. It has done in the past. Each year we’ve improved it as the championship has proceeded.
“But yes, we’re expecting a massive challenge next Saturday.” Waterford have lost four championship games since the beginning of 2020 and, leaving aside the odd under-performance against Clare in Thurles in last year’s Munster opener, Limerick are the only side to have beaten them – the 2020 Munster and All-Ireland finals and last year’s All-Ireland semi.
Wins have been registered in that period against Cork, Clare, Kilkenny, Laois Galway and Tipp but it’s worth noting that they failed to score a goal in any of those three games against Limerick, who looked likelier victors in each of the ties.
Certainly, goalscoring has become a key feature of Liam Cahill’s side and the league final win over Cork was all the more impressive because Iarlaith Daly, Jamie Barron and Austin Gleeson were absent. The latter two each scored two vital points after coming on as substitutes against Tipp. While Saturday’s game need not materially have an affect on what may occur down the line, there is a sense that Waterford need to beat Limerick now if they are to do so in a knockout game.
On Sunday, Tipperary host Clare at FBD Semple Stadium with a 2pm throw-in and, while Colm Bonnar’s men are not yet in must-win territory, it isn’t far off that after the loss in Walsh Park.
Despite the result, the Premier County could take positives from the trip east. The performance of the evergreen Noel McGrath was a stand-out, but as encouraging for Tipp will have been how newer players like Craig Morgan – who held Stephen Bennett scoreless from play – James Quigley, Dillon Quirke and Conor Bowe did.
It has been a charge levelled against Tipp that the players who won the last All-Ireland U21 championship in 2018 and the first U20 title in 2019 have not been integrated quickly enough, but there is still vast experience and the side is now being refreshed. The drawback of that is the dreaded ‘transition’ word, but having gone close against a Waterford side that was flying high, they will believe they can get a win on home soil.
Naturally, Clare will look to Tony Kelly – and how Tipp try to stop him will be a key factor. The Banner had a good start against Cork in their first league before grinding to a halt but, as Tipp showed last week, nobody can be written off.
With Clare back in Thurles the following week to face Cork, there will be considerable Rebel interest in how this game between potential rivals for a knockout spot plays out.