I expect Kilkenny supporters would much prefer to be travelling to Thurles rather than Limerick next Sunday, but once the Shannonsiders failed to reach the semi-finals a double-header in the Gaelic Grounds was to be expected.
Supporters will see the top four sides in the country in action on Sunday. League form has been brought to the semi-finals and I expect to see two great games.
Someday, maybe even next Sunday, Galway will defeat Kilkenny. On the law of averages the Westerners are due a win even if such occasions are pretty rare.
This has been a good league thus far for Kilkenny. Many new players were introduced, some already challenging for a championship start. Most of the more established players have also experienced game time and are now ready for further action.
Kilkenny have met and beaten Galway twice since the beginning of the year. The Walsh Cup is long forgotten, so the benchmark is the league game between the sides in Nowlan Park in early March.
Kilkenny looked very comfortable in that game for long periods, yet had only three points to spare at the finish. Galway will be stronger on Sunday with the return of the Portumna players after their successful club campaign.
The excellent form of Richie Hogan and Paraic Walsh at midfield is a big boost for Kilkenny. So too is the return after a long lay-off of Michael Fennelly, who will have benefited from last Sunday’s game between Ballyhale Shamrocks and Clara.
Kilkenny’s impressive scoring in this year’s league is sufficient to make them favourites in the Gaelic Grounds. Mark Kelly, one of the top league’s forwards, looks very much in the mould of Eddie Brennan with a canny eye for goal. Michael Rice is the one player we have yet to see this year and even if he is not to start on Sunday he would be a huge asset if introduced. I would like to see him get some game time. The difficulty in assessing Galway’s chances is that one never knows what they are likely to do on any given day. There is no doubting the talent in the side, but finding players to fill key positions remains a conundrum for Anthony Cunningham.
The central defensive positions have proved the most difficult for Galway to fill. Ronan Burke (full-back) and Iarla Tannion centre half-back) are now entrusted with the task of resolving a dilemma that has long been a problem for the Westerners.
Joe Canning’s return will help Galway but the team management appear no nearer to deciding on the best position for the Portumna player. His midfield placing in the club All-Ireland final was understandable, but he is required closer to goal in his county jersey.
Reaching a National Hurling League final is ideal preparation for any side with the championship looming. Kilkenny have proven that a successful league can generate plenty of momentum coming into the championship.
Galway will once again be stubborn opponents and could well win on Sunday. But with Kilkenny keen to maintain a winning momentum I take the Cats to achieve a hat-trick of wins in 2014 over the Westerners.
All-Ireland champions Clare face Tipperary in the second game. The Banner men played brilliantly at times in this year’s league but were stretched all the way by Laois in the quarter-final.
Tipperary on the other hand escaped the relegation play-off by a whisker but will be upbeat after their quarter-final victory over Cork.
The form still points to a Clare victory. Barring injury, Clare are likely to field the side that started in last year’s All-Ireland final - it is now up to the players concerned to show that they are worthy of starting their first Munster championship game.
This game is precisely the challenge Tipp require. Talk of their demise is greatly exaggerated and while I expect Clare to win, I see the Premier County giving a real challenge.