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The season starts here…

In our latest blog spot post Ailbe O’Reilly muses on this weekend and what the rest of the intercounty season holds in prospect.

As the Championship season cranks up a number of gears and moves into to its latter stages, it is worth taking a couple of moments to reflect on the season so far and look ahead to some of the upcoming fixtures on the calendar. It is at this stage of year that teams attempt to peak and there are no second chances from here on in.

I will begin with hurling and for hurling enthusiasts, this weekend only means one thing and that is the All Ireland Hurling Quarter Finals. One of the major talking points of this hurling season has been the upturn in fortunes of Cork and Limerick. Both teams were unlucky to have been knocked out of the Munster Championship campaign, they were both narrowly defeated by a Tipperary side hell bent on reclaiming ultimate honours this year after their disappointment last year. The experience has brought them on immensely, however, and the momentum they have gained from coming through the qualifiers will make them a difficult proposition for any team. Both teams are trained by coaches who have plenty of  experience of training teams to All Ireland success, 2 Cork men from the famous St.Finbarrs Club, Jimmy Barry-Murphy and John Allen. The guidance and sheer professionalism of their managers and extended coaching set-up has created a great buzz within the camp and their encouragement has allowed the players to express themselves on the field with the passion and determination we traditionally associate with these counties. They are also oozing confidence on the ball and one of the major hallmarks of both these teams is the emphasis on youth. We have been introduced to many young players this season from both Cork and Limerick who will undoubtedly develop into huge stars of the game in the coming years Players such as Limerick’s Kevin Downes, Shane Dowling and Declan Hannon and Cork’s Conor Lehane, Darren Sweetnam and William Egan to name but a few are class acts. This particular Cork team has echoes of 1999 when a Jimmy Barry Murphy led young Cork side shocked everyone by winning Liam McCarthy.

Waterford come into to this game on the back of a seven point loss to Tipperary in the Munster Final. This winning margin does not reflect Waterford’s true position in that game, in my own opinion. It was nip and tuck for the first half and it was the lapse in concentration in the Waterford back line which allowed Tipperary in for a goal early in the second half which was the turning point in the game and proved pivotal in the end. The Waterford heads dropped after that and some terrible wides cost them the opportunity to get back into the game. If they can cut out these basic errors, they have a great chance of beating Cork. Waterford will not fear Cork, who will ever forget those epic encounters between these two great rivals between 2003 and 2009. A number of moments come to mind immediately, the Munster Final in 2004 when 14 man Waterford beat Cork by a point and the 2005 All Ireland Semi Final when Cork prevailed by a point, a Ken McGrath 65 in the last minute was caught by Donal Og Cusack in the Cork goal. It should be a cracker, epitomising the great games of the past between these two top sides but which side of the bridge in Youghal will be celebrating on Sunday? Time will tell!!

The other semi final features a Limerick side on the up facing a wounded Kilkenny team who were demolished by Galway in the Leinster Final. There is bound to be a major backlash from the wounded Cats but Limerick are well placed to put up a strong challenge to them. It will be intriguing to see just how Kilkenny respond to their biggest defeat in recent times. I expect Kilkenny to prevail but not after a huge fright from Limerick, to set up a semi final against their familiar foes from across the border in Tipperary.

The football quarter finalists will be known after Saturday and for me Donegal have been the most impressive team so far this year. They have  combined their mean defensive tactics from last year with some very impressive forward play and they have been knocking over huge scores in the process. They entered the history books last weekend when they became the first ever Donegal side to win back to back provincial titles. A lot will depend on the draw from here on in but they will give any team a good run for their money. Other usual suspects are still around, Cork, Dublin and Mayo for example. From now on, it is winners takes all and a lot will come down to who can peak at the right time.

We are set for a fascinating finale to the Championship season over the next couple of weeks. The real action begins now!!