By Daire Walsh
When it comes to All-Ireland finals – regardless of the grade or code in question – the ability of each team to get their match-ups right invariably has a huge bearing on the destination of the title.
This will very much be the case at Croke Park on Sunday afternoon, when Limerick and Waterford clash in an all-Munster decider for the Liam McCarthy Cup. Having already played each other twice in 2020 – Limerick edging both encounters – there will be a strong air of familiarity once the players cross the white line in the Jones’ Road venue.
We have a look below at some of the key duels that could determine the outcome of what should a compelling contest.
JACK FAGAN (WATERFORD) V KYLE HAYES (LIMERICK)
While he won’t be the youngest player to take the field on Sunday, Jack Fagan has arguably been the find of the year. A native of Summerhill in Meath, he previously featured for his home county in the 2015 Christy Ring Cup.
He subsequently transferred to De La Salle in Waterford, but despite his interest in representing the Deise county, he was overlooked by both Derek McGrath and Pauric Fanning. As an outsider himself, Tipperary man Liam Cahill had no hesitation when it came to calling Fagan up to the senior panel for the 2020 season.
Having shown promise during their Munster campaign, Fagan exploded into life with a superb goal against Clare in the All-Ireland quarter-final. He also played his part in Waterford’s stunning fightback to overcome Kilkenny at the semi-final stage.
He has added an extra dimension to the Waterford attack, but – should they line up against each other – Fagan will be face-to-face with a powerful performer in Limerick’s Kyle Hayes. Man of the match at centre-forward when Limerick ended a 45-year famine in the All-Ireland championship in 2018, Hayes’ selection at left half-back in the Munster semi-final clash with Tipperary raised some eyebrows.
However, he lined out in defence for the Treaty at underage level and has brought considerable dynamism to the role in the past few weeks. Although he scored three points from his old position in the championship opener against Clare, his driving runs up the left-wing have helped Limerick to create attacking momentum.
At 6’5”, the 22-year-old will be a target for Nickie Quaid’s puck outs. As a quality forward in his own right, he will have a firm understanding of how Fagan is likely to approach the team – albeit that is easier said than done.
CIAN LYNCH (LIMERICK) V TADHG DE BURCA (WATERFORD)
In the four games Limerick have played to date, Cian Lynch has started an equal number at midfield and centre-forward. Last day out against Galway, the 2018 Hurler of the Year reverted to the ’40’ and finished with two points to his name for the third game in succession.
Even though manager John Kiely may well be in the mood for change, he could remain there for their latest test against Waterford. Despite being surrounded by quality, the Patrickswell man is regarded as one of the star performers in this Limerick side.
A nephew of legendary Treaty hurler Ciarán Carey, Lynch has maintained his family legacy with a string of impressive performances since making his inter-county debut in 2015. A skilful and elegant player, he is at the heart of all that is good about this Limerick team.
Even if he is named at centre-forward, he may not be in direct opposition with Tadhg de Búrca. The Clashmore-Kinsalebeg star has been one of the most effective exponents of the sweeping role in modern hurling, with his tactical understanding and positional awareness helping to create a strong defensive chemistry for Waterford.
Galway – and Padraic Mannion in particular – limited the supply line into the Limerick full-forward line in their All-Ireland semi-final showdown and De Burca will be aware of the threat posed by Aaron Gillane, Seamus Flanagan and Graeme Mulcahy. On the flip side, the Treaty half-forward line amassed 0-11 from play, which means de Búrca will be careful not to completely abandon his post.
Whilst both players tend to drift away from their named positions, it is quite probable they will collide at some point. De Búrca has also registered points in the recent wins over Clare and Kilkenny, and Lynch will need to be mindful of his defensive duties as well.
STEPHEN BENNETT (WATERFORD) V BARRY NASH (LIMERICK)
Should he have a good day at the office on Sunday, Waterford’s Stephen Bennett will emerge as the top scorer in the All-Ireland senior hurling championship. Just two points behind Galway’s Joe Canning and nine adrift of Tony Kelly, he has reached double figures in each of his four games to date.
The lowest tally he has accumulated was the 0-10 haul he recorded in the All-Ireland quarter-final triumph over Clare. Before that, he bagged 12 points apiece in their Munster clashes with Cork and Limerick.
Most impressively of all, he was Waterford scorer-in-chief with 1-10 in the magnificent last-four success at the expense of Kilkenny. A dead-ball specialist, he has also been superb in open play throughout the championship.
In the last three games alone, he has contributed a combined 1-10 from general play and can lay claim to being the in-form inside forward in the country. John Kiely will give careful consideration before deciding who will pick up Bennett on the day.
Should both players line out in their expected positions, Barry Nash will be the man tasked with putting the shackles on the Ballysaggart ace. Nash and Sean Finn had their hands full in their semi-final encounter with Galway as both Brian Concannon and Conor Whelan came away with three points each.
Still, having won an All-Ireland in 2018 as a non-playing substitute, the South Liberties man has worked his way into the starting line-up. Considering how settled the team has been overall in recent years, this tells us all we need to know about the impression Nash has left on his manager.
Following a shaky start, Limerick grew into the Galway game with their defence gradually coming to grips with the job at hand. Bennett was at the heart of Waterford’s scintillating second half comeback against Kilkenny and the Treaty rearguard will know they can’t afford to give them a free reign of the Croke Park pitch.
AARON GILLANE (LIMERICK) V SHANE MCNULTY (WATERFORD)
Having initially been viewed as a doubt to feature after being kept in hospital overnight in the aftermath of his county’s triumph over Galway, Gillane looks set to win his battle to be fit for Sunday’s All-Ireland decider.
The sharpshooter returned to training last weekend and it is anticipated to take up his customary role at top of the right. An All Star winner in 2019, Gillane is Limerick’s top scorer in the championship with 2-34 in four games.
He has been kept relatively quiet from open play, with the 1-1 he accumulated in the Munster semi-final victory against Tipperary proving to be his highest tally away from frees. Nevertheless, he did post two points apiece from general in their meetings with Clare and Waterford in the Munster final.
Allied to his dead-ball prowess, it means Gillane remains the one to watch. In a similar vein to the All-Ireland decider two years ago, he was kept on a tight leash by Galway’s Daithi Burke last Sunday week.
This in itself isn’t something to be necessarily concerned about as Burke has been one of the best defenders in Ireland for a number of years.
Had he still been on the panel, Noel Connors might have been expected to man-mark Gillane this weekend. Instead, it is most likely to fall upon De La Salle’s Shane McNulty.
On the panel since 2014, McNulty had to wait three years before making his senior championship debut. He featured in last year’s league final defeat to Limerick and will hope for better fortune on this occasion.
In addition to keeping close tabs on a host of heralded attackers, McNulty has shown he can be just as effective at the opposite end of the field. He has registered points for the Deise in their wins against Cork and Kilkenny, his score in the latter game inspiring those around him to finish off the challenge of the Cats.
He will need to be at his best at both ends of the field if Waterford are going to end a 61-year wait for the Liam McCarthy Cup.
JAMIE BARRON (WATERFORD) V DARRAGH O’DONOVAN (LIMERICK)
Limerick’s Darragh O’Donovan has been in and out of Limerick side in this year’s championship, with John Kiely tweaking his line-up depending on who they are facing.
However, O’Donovan was alongside Cian Lynch in midfield when the Treaty were crowned All-Ireland winners against Galway two years ago and Kiely may look to utilise his experience in this behind-closed-doors showpiece.
He was withdrawn on the third-quarter mark the last day out, but even if he wasn’t too start, he will have a big part to play for Limerick around the middle-third.
A Hurler of the Year nominee in 2017, Jamie Barron has displayed flashes of his old brilliance in 2020.
His three-point haul against Cork in their Munster championship opener set Waterford on their way towards a morale-boosting win and he conjured a brace of white flag scores in their All-Ireland quarter-final dismantling of Clare.
He added a point to his championship tally against Kilkenny and while he isn’t scoring as freely as he was in 2017 (3-10 in six games), the diminutive centre-fielder has it within himself to light up this Liam McCarthy decider.
Like O’Donovan, Barron already has an All-Ireland final appearance under his belt. Whereas the Limerick man had the measure of Galway in his decider, Barron was on the wrong side of the result in showpiece affair against the Tribesmen.
On both occasions, the Waterford and Limerick midfielders allowed Galway captain David Burke to roam free during a number of intervals and lash over a succession of fine points. This is something both camps will have to be wary of and O’Donovan – in unison with William O’Donoghue – will look to deny Barron the space in which he thrives.