We are well and truly at the business end of this summer’s All-Ireland SHC as four of the remaining six teams prepare to do battle on Saturday.
Kilkenny and Limerick have already secured safe passage into the semi-finals following impressive provincial performances that saw both counties retain their Leinster and Munster titles respectively.
Those two sides await their next opponents. However, they won’t have too much longer to find out who they will be facing as the four quarter-finalists get set for season defining matches this weekend.
First up on Saturday, Waterford manager Liam Cahill goes up against his native county in the form of Liam Sheedy’s Tipperary at 1:30pm in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
Later that evening, Leinster finalists Dublin travel to Semple Stadium to face Cork at 7pm.
Here, we preview both clashes as the 2021 championship gets ever closer to its conclusion.
All-Ireland SHC Quarter-Final, Tipperary v Waterford, Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Saturday, 1:30pm
This feels like a highly significant game for both managers.
Liam Sheedy’s second spell in charge of Tipperary will almost certainly be deemed at worst a moderate success irrespective of what happens in the coming years.
Their 2019 All-Ireland victory in Sheedy’s first year back at the helm was only the fourth time the Premier County have lifted the Liam McCarthy Cup this century, two of which came under the stewardship of the Portroe man.
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That level of achievement is not taken for granted by people in the county. However, it was a disappointing championship campaign last year as Limerick convincingly disposed of them in the Munster semi-final before Galway eventually ended their campaign in a memorable All-Ireland quarter-final after Sheedy’s men had qualified via a qualifier defeat of Cork.
Their season is at a similar crossroads this Saturday. Sheedy knows that defeat at the same stage as 2020 would signal failure that the Tipp natives may not be so accepting of this time.
Whereas last year’s disappointing campaign was excused by most considering 2019 had been such a monumental success, there will always be expectation in a traditional hurling county such as Tipperary that they should be competing for and winning All-Irelands.
A victory over Clare that may not have been only for a highly questionable sin-bin for Banner half-forward Aidan McCarthy that led to an equally bemusing penalty which Jason Forde dispatched of swung that Munster semi-final in Tipp’s favour but did nothing to increase confidence levels in the county.
They put in a fantastic first half performance against All-Ireland champions Limerick in the provincial decider and raced into an 11-point lead. That was as good as it got however, as John Kiely’s men completely ravaged them to overturn the deficit in the third quarter and send Tipp home with their tail firmly placed between their legs.
The only way they can redeem this year and show signs of improvement is by making another All-Ireland final. Defeat on Saturday and Tipperary supporters will not have 2019 to the forefront of their minds. Rather, they will look back on two consecutive years where a team that from midfield onwards is arguably as good as any in the country and a solid if not unspectacular back-line failed to reach anywhere near their potential.
Victory against Waterford is not a want for this team. It is a necessity for the players and for the manager in particular.
Saturday’s encounter holds similar weight for Waterford boss Liam Cahill.
There is the juicy sub-plot that he is a Tipperary man himself and was in the running for the top job in Tipp in 2019 before Sheedy was eventually appointed.
The former Ballingarry and Thurles Sarsfield clubman will of course be desperate to get one over the Premier for his own personal reasons but there is much more at stake for Cahill and Waterford on Saturday afternoon.
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Last year was an incredible success when you consider the perilous position the Déise found themselves in both 2018 and 2019. A solitary victory against Cork in Derek McGrath’s final game in charge three years ago was their only championship victory for two years as they finished rock bottom of the table in the Munster round-robin for two consecutive years.
The fact that they found themselves in Munster and All-Ireland deciders in Cahill’s first year in senior intercounty management is a testament to the work that he had done to rejuvenate a talented yet underperforming squad of players.
They conquered hurling’s biggest powerhouses Cork and Kilkenny on their way to each final and despite eventually succumbing to an imperious Limerick side in both finals, they came away from 2020 as the undisputed second-best side in the country, an astonishing step forward from where Cahill had found the team.
Despite their strong 2020 showing, the road to the 2021 quarter-finals has been rocky. Clare were comfortable in their defeat of Cahill’s men in the Munster quarter-final and a first round qualifier victory against Laois on a scoreline of 3-23 to 2-21 in Nowlan Park did little to quell fears amongst Waterford fans that 2020 was a mere flash in the pan and that 2021 would see them revert to type.
Last weekend’s win against Galway seems to have energised the Waterford fanbase once again but with that comes unrealistic expectations for a county that has not won an All-Ireland since Dwight D. Eisenhower was the President of the USA. Ultimately, they faced a pitiful and at times shambolic Galway team.
Failure to get by Tipp would culminate in a season of regression for a team that have not faced anyone of note to date. When you consider they made two finals last year and could be eliminated in two quarter-finals one year on it is difficult to see that as anything other than disappointing.
That is why victory is so important for Cahill’s charges against their Munster rivals.
Tipperary have the know-how in games like these. Add that to the fact that they are, simply put, a better team than Waterford when both sides are at their best, Sheedy’s side seem the safe bet to progress to the semi-final at the expense of the Déise.
Expect a titanic tussle but Tipperary to eventually come out on top.
Verdict: Tipperary win
All-Ireland SHC Quarter-Final, Dublin v Cork, Semple Stadium, Saturday, 7pm
There doesn’t seem to be the same level of anticipation around this game from supporters of either side or neutrals as there is for Saturday’s opening quarter-final.
There are two reasons for the lack of hype that one would expect for a game of this magnitude.
Firstly, the winners have the daunting task of facing three-in-a-row Munster champions and 2020 All-Ireland champions Limerick in the semi-final. While the victors will rightfully be filled with confidence with a win on Saturday, serious questions would remain about the viability of their challenge to the best team in Ireland for the last three years.
The second reason for the shortage in pre-match buzz for Saturday evening’s encounter is the form of both sides.
Dublin impressively saw off a potential banana skin in the form of Darren Gleeson’s Antrim side who were the surprise package of the league, an opening round victory against Clare standing out amongst a number of strong performances.
Mattie Kenny’s men followed that up with a shock defeat of a Galway side that were heavily fancied to be the main contender to Limerick’s crown. While it remains one of the best performances and results of the Kenny era, Galway’s shortcomings were exposed when they crashed out of the championship last weekend to Waterford.
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Despite several Covid-19 cases in the camp meaning Dublin were short players for the Leinster final with Kilkenny, including two starters in the form of Cian O’Callaghan and Ronan Hayes, they were disappointing in their 1-25 to 0-19 loss to Brian Cody’s men.
With the fitness of full-back Eoghan O’Donnell still up in the air ahead of this do-or-die clash, you question the belief amongst a panel who have failed to make huge strides forward under the stewardship of former Cuala manager Kenny in his three years in charge.
They lost to the same opponent that they will take on this weekend in Round 1 of the qualifiers last year and it’s hard to believe that they have bridged that mental gap that they can win a big championship game against historically bigger opposition.
For Cork, it seems to be a case of just taking it one game at a time.
They done all they could against Limerick in the Munster semi-final, but it has become abundantly clear to all onlookers that no team can live with the Treaty when they hit their peak.
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A long lay-off was followed up by a win against Clare in last Saturday’s enthralling encounter.
They have got the quarter-final draw that they would have wanted, and while they may not be in great form, they now have a platform to kick on and go into a semi-final full of confidence in the stands, on the sideline and most importantly on the pitch.
In order for that to happen, a strong performance and equally positive result is necessary.
The likes of Shane Barrett, Shane Kingston and Patrick Horgan in a vibrant Cork forward-line have the potential to do irreparable damage to any back-line in the country.
With that in mind, the Rebels should have too much in their locker for a Dublin team who look set for another season outside of the semi-finals.
Verdict: Cork win