Galway v Kilkenny, 5.30pm (Andy Larkin, Cork), Live on RTÉ 2
Another rematch and if it even approaches the standard of fare offered to the huge attendance at Kenny Park on July 2, patrons and those watching the live coverage on RTÉ 2 are in for a treat.
These are old rivals of course, long ensconced in the annual battle for ultimate honours. It is exactly ten years since one of them wasn’t in the final. They have clashed three times with the O’Duffy Cup on the line, including in 2019, when Galway prevailed, and 2020, when it was Kilkenny’s turn.
Galway returned to the summit last year thanks to a strong finish against Cork and there is little Kilkenny won’t know about them. The opposite might not be the case though, with so many changes in the Kilkenny ranks, due to the retirements of Davina Tobin and Collette Dormer, and the absence through travelling or injury of Meighan Farrell and the Doyle sisters, Aoife and Kellyann.
Workrate remains their watch word however, and after accounting for Down, Limerick, Antrim and Offaly, they travelled to Athenry with the purpose of having a true barometer of where they stood.
No better test than the most consistent side of the past four seasons, brilliantly managed by Cathal Murray. But Murray and his crew, who like Kilkenny, had a 100 per cent record from their four group ties, were relieved to escape with a draw thanks to a late point from Áine Keane, who along with Sabina Rabbitte has made a big impact breaking into the side this year.
Kilkenny showed that though they were different, the calibre of ability and attitude remained the same. Miriam Walsh has been magnificent all season, scoring goals for fun and a threat to any defence once she gets the sliotar in her paw. Denise Gaule remains a heavy scoregetter and influential playmaker. Katie Nolan is busy bee who invariably weighs in with a few scores while Claire Phelan and Grace Walsh are experienced defenders.
They recovered from a slow start against Dublin in the quarter-final to win by 14 points and among those to shine was Julianne Malone, a 2016 All-Ireland winner who last played for the Cats in 2018 before moving abroad.
But, of course, Galway are a tremendous outfit, blessed with a strong spine starting with goalie Sarah Healy, and through to skipper Sarah Dervan, while the likes of Aoife Donohue, Niamh Kilkenny and Siobhán McGrath operate often, though not always, up the middle. That flexibility is a real advantage, as is the depth of panel which allows them to make impactful changes.
Veteran defender Heather Cooney has battled back into the side in defence, after missing last year with a cruciate knee ligament injury but Rebecca Hennelly is sidelined having suffered her third such injury, while Orlaith McGrath is another to fall foul of the cruciate curse.
Nobody scored more than Galway in the group stages, where they totted up 12-79, and by only conceding 4-39 into the bargain – the second most miserly defence after Cork – they had the superior score difference that earned them the direct route to the last four at Kilkenny’s expense.
Just as with the first pairing, the question will be asked beforehand about which is the preferred way to the semi-finals but perhaps the answer in this instance is that both would have been happy with how they made it, with Murray being fairly clear on what he has and Brian Dowling perhaps looking for a big knockout game on live television for some of his less exposed players.
There are countless questions and the only certainty is that there will be huge entertainment in the provision of the answers.
GALWAY: Sarah Healy, Shauna Healy, S Dervan (capt), H Cooney, S Gardiner, R Black, D Higgins, R Hannify, N Kilkenny, C Dolan, N Hanniffy, A Donohue, S McGrath, A O’Reilly, S Rabbitte. Subs: F Ryan, T Kenny, C Donohue, M Cooney, E Helebert, C Murphy, C Finnerty, S Spellman, A Keane, N McPeake, C Cormican, R Hennelly, O McGrath
KILKENNY: A Norris, M Teehan, G Walsh, M Bambrick, T Fitzgerald, Claire Phelan, L Murphy, S Fitzgerald, K Power, D Gaule, K Nolan, J Malone, M O’Connell, M Walsh, M Kenneally. Subs: E Kavanagh, A Prendergast (capt), Ciara Phelan, A McHardy, N Deely, S Dwyer, S Crowley, L Fennelly, S O’Keeffe, A Curtis, R Breen, C O’Keeffe, D Quigley, C Comerford, M Corcoran