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Dublin: 13 °C Tuesday 2 September, 2014

Taking stick: league semi-finals preview

Declan Ryan is finishing the league without having fielded his best team while Kilkenny, Cork and Clare all have cases to think they can start the season with silverware

Clare's Pat Donnellan, Kilkenny's Richie Power, Tipperary's Pa Bourke and Cork's Lorcan McLaughlin at Holycross Abbey
Clare's Pat Donnellan, Kilkenny's Richie Power, Tipperary's Pa Bourke and Cork's Lorcan McLaughlin at Holycross Abbey
Image: ©INPHO/James Crombie

DECLAN RYAN IS hoping he can rob Peter to pay Paul without any hit to the pocket this Sunday.

Because moving Paudie Maher back from full- to wing-back due to the injury of captain Paul Curran will deprive Tipperary of crucial drive on their own ’40.

With Maher vacating the number seven shirt, the Tipp manager’s issues at wing-back are exacerbated. The retirement of Declan Fanning at the end of the 2010 season presented Ryan with a conundrum in his half-back line that has yet to be solved. It seemed John O’Keeffe was his answer but his fellow Clonoutly-Rossmore clubman has fallen out of favour since last season.

David Young’s chance seemed to have passed after the Munster championship match against Clare last year but he, along with Tom Stapleton on the other wing, has an opportunity to lay claim to the spot. The very idea that Ryan’s championship team is not already set in stone must be something of a worry – more because he has at least one position with no obvious candidate rather than the pleasing headache of picking between multiple candidates.

Injuries in the full-back line continue to frustrate Ryan. He previously lost Curran just before the Dublin league game while Donagh Maher and Paddy Stapleton – both vying for the number two shirt – will also miss the league semi-final. Stapleton had returned to club action for Borris-Ileigh in each of the last two weekends but left the fray against Nenagh Eire Og at the weekend with a groin complaint.

The corner-back is one of several – Seamus Callanan, Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher and Eoin Kelly – who have experienced either little or no inter-county action this year. So for Ryan, he may enter the first round of the championship a little unsure of what he has.

Jimmy Barry-Murphy gives the impression that he is happy with his Cork lot as Conor Lehane waits on the bench, with Jamie Coughlan and Niall McCarthy starting on the wings. Cathal Naughton is absent with a hamstring injury so there is a sense that the Rebels are – by chance or design – keeping their powder dry for an expected Munster clash with the Premier County this summer.

What it will mean on the pitch this Sunday is that Cork will be short two players who can knock defences back on the heels with their speed and direct running.

JBM certainly got a taster of the damage Lehane can do against Tipperary as the youngster found the net in Thurles a couple of weeks ago. While not having it all his own way on the wing against Paudie Maher, it was in full-forward against Curran where he got his major and caused Tipp headaches. It is a feature we expect to see when the sides clash in the championship.

The selection of John Gardiner at midfield tells us a couple of things: one, all three parts of the old half-back triumvirate have struggled to keep their old slot; and two, Barry-Murphy is still tinkering in the middle sector. Lorcan McLoughlin, Gardiner, Sean Og O hAilpin and Darren Sweetnam being four of the men to wear numbers eight and nine so far this season.

Davy Fitzgerald will be hoping to keep his league fortunes going after taking the 1B title ©INPHO/Lorraine O’Sullivan

The Munster pair played out a highly entertaining clash in the final round of the league recently and the teams’ styles of play suggest there could be more of the same. As results have shown in recent years, Premier-Rebel games can be tough to call.

Kilkenny come into their league semi-final clash with Clare on the back of a mauling of Galway. Henry Shefflin is back doing a little light training and it seems he will return to a confident team come championship time, one positive feeding the other. We know what to expect from Kilkenny but the Banner County are as yet untested against the best sides under Davy Fitzgerald.

They blitzed all before them in the regulati0n league games and, as Kilkenny did against Dublin, showed great spirit to peg back Limerick in the league final when defeat looked likely. As such, both sides possess fight. Whether that will be enough for Clare to spring the shock of the season remains to be seen.

Davy Fitz will, of course, be confident that his side can make a league final and do what Dublin did last year – take that crucial first step towards championship silverware by winning the league.

There is always the suspicion that Kilkenny can put up a big score on this fledgling Clare side but the absence of the injured Richie Hogan won’t aid their cause. Still, Richie Power may again be available while Colin Fennelly, Eoin Larkin and TJ Reid are in sparkling form. Time after time in this league, Kilkenny have carried that goal threat and from a variety of sources, including this year’s star turn Matt Ruth. With James McInerney absent from the centre-back spot, Clare will do well to limit goal chances at their end of the field.

Indeed they will do well to keep on the Cats’ tails going down the stretch. Clare are the team that will need goals and with enough ball into Conor McGrath, they can do just that.

But what sounds good on paper may not prove so easy on grass.

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