All-Ireland semi-finals: Opportunity knocks for Kilkenny, Waterford, Limerick and Galway

Any talk of the achievement of winning the 2020 All-Ireland Championship being diminished in some way, or an asterisk being put beside the year in the roll of honour has been put to bed.

Tell that to Waterford, who are searching for their first Liam MacCarthy Cup success since 1959.

Or Kilkenny, who are experiencing a drought by their own impossibly high recent standards, as they look to seal their first triumph since 2015.

Limerick and Galway have tasted recent success to end long barren spells, and are keen to make hay while the sun shines, in pursuit of their ninth and sixth titles respectively.

Indeed, the hurling this year has been as good, if not better than ever. It’s just a pity there are no crowds on hand to witness the action.

Amassing a total of 30 years is no longer an eye-catching total in intercounty hurling. But rather it is now a requirement. The lowest tallies which have won games were the 2-18 and 1-21 scored by Tipperary and Clare against Cork and Wexford respectfully; games which took place on heavy pitches and in difficult conditions.

Those concerned about intensity when games are played behind closed doors need not have worried.

And so we find ourselves on All-Ireland semi-final weekend; the jewel in hurling’s crown over the last two years since they pulled the two games within 24 hours of each other.

When two extra-time epics were served up in 2018, we thought we would never see a weekend’s drama quite like it again. Perhaps Kilkenny and Tipperary’s wins last year did not quite eclipse it, but they certainly matched it as a spectacle.

It is not the last weekend in July, but rather four months later. But it remains just as mouth-watering a prospect as the eyes of hurling followers turn to Jones’ Road for two 70-minute periods.

Will the Cats get the cream?

Brian Cody knows how to win All-Ireland semi-finals. Since he took the reins on Nore-side at the beginning of the 1999 season, they have reached the penultimate stage on 19 occasions. Just twice – against Galway in 2001 and 2005 – have they tripped up.

When they are still standing at this stage of the championship, it usually means Kilkenny have settled into a groove and are hard to stop.

With former Hurler of the Year winners TJ Reid and Richie Hogan in top form, the Cats boast an attack to hurt any side. But fire-power up front, defensive solidity and a strong return on puck-outs aside, Kilkenny have that unquantifiable hunger back.

The manner in which they overturned a five-point deficit in the Leinster decider showed that while the current class may not be as star-studded as previous Cody teams, they have just as great an appetite for the battle.

Or will Waterford finally have their day?

In their way stand a resurgent Déise team, who will in no way be overawed by their opposition. They snapped a 57-year winless run against their neighbours in 2017, and have reason to believe on Saturday evening.

Liam Cahill – who is quickly becoming one of the sport’s hottest managerial commodities after underage success with Tipperary – has unlocked Waterford’s potential once more.

Hindsight might suggest that players of the calibre of Tadhg de Búrca, Austin Gleeson and Jamie Barron were never going to be down for long. But the last two winters were long on Suir-side, after calamitous championship campaigns.

Not only has the Tipp-native allowed the big names to thrive, but also given others a platform upon which to succeed. Jack Fagan is enjoying a breakthrough campaign, Stephen Bennett is in the form of his life, while Dessie Hutchinson showed with a stunning first-half display last week that he is as deadly a poacher as there is right now.

As they cantered clear of Clare last weekend amassing 3-27, it would have been easy to forget that Waterford were dealt the cruel blow of losing their marquee forward Pauric Mahony at the start of the championship.

They will be hoping that in the strangest of years, they can end 61 years of hurt.

Old foes face off once again

Limerick and Galway last met in the 2018 All-Ireland final, but much has changed in the interim.

Going into that decider, the Tribesmen were the reigning champions, and the dominant force in hurling. John Kiely’s group of inexperienced upstarts had enjoyed an Odyssean journey to the decider, but many felt the task of winning an All-Ireland title was too much, too soon for this young group.

Since James Owens threw the ball in on August 19, 2018, the hurling landscape has dramatically shifted. Limerick have won six of the next major trophies on offer, slipping up only once against Kilkenny in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final.

Not only have the Treaty been hugely successful, but they have dictated the latest turn in hurling’s latest tactical revolution. Their dominance in the middle third has forced teams to re-think, with their low-lying half-forward line creating space for Messrs Aaron Gillane and Graeme Mulcahy to plunder closer to goal.

That’s the headache facing Shane O’Neill on Sunday afternoon, who comes up against his native county. Interestingly, the former Na Piarsaigh boss was central to a triumph which helped lay the foundations for this period of Limerick success, as he guided the club to an All-Ireland club title in 2016.

Perhaps it is mind games rather than a mere coincidence, but John Kiely has deployed a far smaller Na Piarsaigh contingent than usual for Sunday. William O’Donoghue is the sole representative from the Caherdavin outfit on the starting team. Peter Casey drops out, while Mike Casey’s injury and Shane Dowling’s retirement decrease the city club’s delegation.

While Galway have the artillery to fight fire with fire, they will need to get on top in the middle of the field, and improve on puck-outs.

Unlike 2018, the Tribesmen enter the contest as underdogs. But they are by no means no-hopers.

Watch Kilkenny vs Waterford and Limerick vs Galway live on Sky Sports Mix.

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