Nicky English: Final spin of the wheel with jeopardy for nearly everyone

Limerick are favourites to advance but consistently impressive Waterford can’t be taken for granted

The end of the first phase of the championship arrives this weekend. After a Leinster campaign full of twists and turns, Munster still has provided the early-season fireworks.

There is one more spin of the wheel to come. If you had said seven weeks ago that Limerick would be playing for their future against Waterford in the Gaelic Grounds, people would have been worried about you.

Limerick, however, have every reason to be worried about this Sunday. At the outset, I believe they will win but not if they take the result for granted. In the early 2020s, the consistent Croke Park differential between the teams was 11 points.

Things have been tighter in Munster. Two years ago, as league winners Waterford put up a big struggle in the Gaelic Grounds and lost narrowly. Last season, there was very little between the teams although Limerick did play the final quarter without the red-carded Gearóid Hegarty.


So far, Waterford have impressed me in all of their matches. They had started solid at the back with a defence built around Conor Prunty and Tadhg De Búrca but Prunty was injured after just one full match. In his absence, they conceded four goals last week and could have conceded more.

At full strength they were very impressive, holding Cork, who have since become the gold standard, to 1-25 – since when they have averaged scores more than nine points higher.

More impressive for me than individual form has been the resilience in Waterford, the fight they showed last week in nearly recovering a match they had trailed since the opening minutes and often by significant margins.

The concession of injury-time scores has cost them a point against Tipperary and Clare — or they’d already be in a Munster final.

Given all of that, hunger and desire combined with prowess, they are not to be underestimated. If they have performed to that level in three matches, you can rely on them in the fourth. They’ll turn up.

Limerick have struggled at the back this season and lost more players than usual to injury. The middle third where they have been consistently dominant in the past few years has not provided the same platform. Diarmaid Byrnes hasn’t been close to his HOTY [hurler of the year] form of recent years; at the risk of repeating myself, his free-taking — and shooting in general — woes have been symbolic of the team’s problems.

At the same time, they were four up against Cork in the dying moments in Páirc Uí Chaoimh and scored 3-26. Limerick are still Limerick. Before the championship, not many could see who would challenge them but like last year they have been below-par.

Twelve months ago, they were in another winner-takes-all match — against Cork. There is very little between most of the teams in Munster but what Limerick do afterwards, has been their calling card throughout this decade.

The mood in Tipperary has been poor after the savaging by Cork a week ago. Teams can revive in last-day fixtures with the pressure off and nothing to play for except pride — as Tipp well know, having fallen foul of a Waterford team in the same position last year.

But Clare have an impressive array of the very qualities that Tipperary couldn’t handle against Cork — pace, athleticism and an eye for goal. Shane O’Donnell is in sensational form and other hard, powerful runners like David Fitzgerald, Diarmuid Ryan and Mark Rodgers also pose a threat.

Tipp’s season has been on a downward spiral since Clare hammered them in the league in Portlaoise. In my experience, Tipperary teams rarely recover from poor league campaigns. Their best championship display so far was in Waterford, which is a tighter pitch. Back home in the wide expanses of Thurles, they could be in further trouble.

The maddest end to any championship was after a match I was working at in Wexford five years ago. The home side drew with Kilkenny and nobody appeared to be sure what was happening.

In fact, both teams got through to the final but at that moment, with all the permutations from the see-saw game in Parnell Park where Dublin edged out Galway, the atmosphere in the ground was electric. Leinster have stuck with those pairings and again, there are four candidates for three seats.

Dublin have developed a good record with Galway in recent years and don’t have any inhibitions about playing them. They were good against Kilkenny last week and could well have won but weren’t helped by their wides habit. They were under most pressure in Wexford but pulled out a draw after late goals, which was a great result for the team as a group.

They have had Dónal Burke back and playing well. He’s very experienced for someone in his mid-20s and other established players like Chris Crummey and Eoghan O’Donnell have also been in good form. They look like they know what they’re doing and for me, pose danger for a Galway team with no discernible improvement on the past couple of years and it won’t surprise me if they get turned over by Dublin.

Wexford have impressed me even if the faith I had in them wasn’t reflected in their early championship results. Players they can’t do without, Rory O’Connor, Lee Chin and Liam Ryan are fit and performing. Newcomers like Richie Lawlor and Cian Byrne have also caught the eye — although the latter was rightly sent off against Galway for a reckless foul.

They’re neat, using the ball well and look more focused. Mark Fanning is a barometer. He looked like he had lost confidence on the frees and in general play but his lively form this season says that the confidence is back.

Kilkenny look to have stalled. Whether it has been the recent injuries to key players or a run of poor form, they have been doing things, like drawing with Carlow, that it doesn’t say on the Kilkenny tin.

With everyone back fit, they’ll be favourites but Wexford have a good shot at maintaining their fine recent record in this fixture.

Finally, you’d fancy Antrim to preserve their MacCarthy Cup status against Carlow in Belfast, which wouldn’t be much of a reward for Carlow after a valiant campaign.