Championship talking points
By Cian O'Connell
Limerick's character and depth
Two constant themes in Limerick's year mattered deeply at Croke Park on Sunday: character and depth.
At various stages in this truly remarkable hurling year different questions have been posed. Once more Limerick found the answers owing much to the courage and crop of players at John Kiely's disposal.
It is in the summer rather than spring when campaigns are defined, but the Allianz League offered some encouraging signs, especially the stirring comeback win over Galway at Pearse Stadium.
That was a victory which secured promotion, but it meant even more. Galway led by 1-15 to 1-7 at the interval in Salthill. Limerick, though, summoned a fiery response to claim a 2-18 to 1-19 March success.
Futher drama followed in knockout fixtures against Clare and Tipperary with Limerick's development continuing. While the Cusack Park Munster Championship loss to Clare hurt John Kiely's charges have stayed admirably composed even in the most trying of circumstances.
Kilkenny launched a daring Quarter-Final rally, but Limerick had sufficient craft to close out the deal.
Cork led by six points with seven minutes of a normal time remaining, but Limerick, bolstered by the impact of some splendid substitutes and a glorious Nickie Quaid save, continued to probe.
Limerick's replacements contributed 2-6 the only Cork score from a substitute arrived courtesy of a Jack O'Connor point. In such a keenly contested affair that was a critical issue as the extra-time goals from Shane Dowling and Pat Ryan sealed the deal for Limerick.
In the League Limerick hadn't a healthy Na Piarsaigh contingent available further underlining the improvements made in the county. Two All Ireland Under 21 triumphs in three years, allied to LIT, UL, and Mary I's competitiveness at Fitzgibbon Cup level, and Ardscoil Ris Harty Cup record has helped pave the way for this collection of players. Kiely, Paul Kinnerk, Alan Cunningham, Jimmy Quilty, and Brian Geary have established a style and system to suit. Now Limerick are one stop away from their intended destination: the Hogan Stand steps.
Cork's semi-final issues
Since Shane O'Donnell's splendid three goal 2013 All Ireland Final replay cameo in 2013 Cork have encoutered problems at the penultimate hurdle.
Semi-final defeats to Tipperary in 2014, Waterford in 2017, and Limerick last Sunday arrived following Munster Final glory.
Leading by six points with seven minutes on the clock ensures that this will be certainly added to the what might have been list.
It was all going according to plan for Cork, who had hurled smartly to seize the initiative in the third quarter.
How Cork came thundering back following Cian Lynch's first half stoppage time goal augured well, but Limerick stayed the distance.
Amazingly it was Cork, who required an icy Patrick Horgan free to force extra-time such was the momentum generated by Limerick.
Despite Horgan's gorgeous effort Cork just couldn't cope in the closing 20 minutes. Limerick had the belief and the options, while Cork started losing players to unfortunate injuries.
Darragh Fitzgibbon had skipped through to land four points, Daniel Kearney was dashing about also mining three scores causing significant bother, while Seamus Harnedy's presence was missed in the dying embers.
That another harrowing Croke Park loss was suffered meant a day that promised so much ended in bitter disappointment.
For a while Clare were worrying and wondering as Galway accumulated a significant nine point lead in the first half.
Gradually, though, Clare navigated their way back into the reckoning, especially following the decision to plant Colm Galvin in the pocket.
Galway just weren't finding the same amount of space and Galvin was there to tidy up breaks and commence Clare attacks.
Slowly, but surely the gap was narrowed down with Peter Duggan enjoying another hugely productive outing from play and frees.
In the second period John Conlon was finally able to manufacture space to shoot points and cause problems, while Shane O'Donnell's relevance to the Clare cause shouldn't be underestimated.
O'Donnell, the ultimate team player, rifled over three points, while Tony Kelly's class also decorated a gripping game.
Clare's substitutes made themselves count too. David Fitzgerald's added a physical edge, Ian Galvin buzzed about, while Jason McCarthy's point at the death was a score of immense beauty considering everything was on the line.
There is poise and precision in how Clare approached matches, but passion was evident too at the Jones Road venue.
In the glory years of the Ger Loughnane era that connection between hurlers and supporters counted. The 'Banner Roar' was most certainly heard on Saturday. Donal Moloney and Gerry O'Connor will want it to be similarly loud at Semple Stadium this weekend on what promises to be a revealing Sunday.
Galway's injury issues
In the Championship things can change fairly quickly. Micheal Donoghue has kept Galway firmly focused on the important business throughout the summer.
Outside the camp the strength of the Galway panel continues to be spoken about, but it is about to receive a serious test.
Daithi Burke was rated as hugely doubtful for the drawn encounter, but he lasted the full match.
Galway, though, were forced to replace Adrian Tuohey, Gearoid McInerney, and Joe Canning due to injuries, but they still survived to draw despite all of Clare's industry.
There has been a consistency to Galway since 2015 contesting All Ireland semi-finals for the past four years and deciders in two of those campaigns.
Experience has been attained and Galway's 2018 Leinster Final replay win over Kilkenny was noteworthy. Brian Cody's Cats finished with a flourish at Croke Park to earn a draw, but Galway produced a fine performance in the sequel.
Donoghue will be striving to emulate the standards achieved on that boiling afternoon in Thurles once more. It won't be easy because Clare will thunder into the challenge. This has been one of the greatest Hurling Championships ever and a real sense of intrigue is attached to the impending trip to Tipp for Clare and Galway followers.