The GAA Championship: Laois Unleashed (It’s Pronounced ‘Leash’)

by | Jul 12, 2019

All shock results are, of course, unexpected, by definition. But while Laois beating Dublin in the All-Ireland Hurling championship wasn’t David slaying Goliath with a hurley and a sliothar, nor was it really being talked of as a potential upset.

The preliminary quarter-finals (PQFs) are a by-product of the new All-Ireland hurling championship structure introduced last year. The third-placed teams in the two new provincial championship round-robin stages visit the finalists of the equally-new second-tier Joe McDonagh Cup.

A rough soccer analogy would be the Football League (EFL) champions playing the fourth-placed team in the Premier League (EPL). And the chasm in class would be similar. Thus, PQFs have been seen as a mere sop to the best of Ireland’s ‘lesser’ ‘non-traditional’ hurling counties rather than a genuine competitive opportunity for them.

Like New York’s footballers, they aren’t expected to WIN, although the hurling championship at least structurally accommodates such an occurrence, unlike the 32-team football championship, in which New York are a 33rd team. But while few Irish counties have established themselves as ‘traditional’ hurling counties, the competitive gap isn’t necessarily that great. And the new structure is part-designed to close that gap (the very opposite of the EPL/EFL Championship dynamic).

The last county to fully transition, Offaly, last month returned to hurling’s lower reaches, 38 years after winning their first of four All-Ireland titles. Antrim reached 1989’s All-Ireland final, a phenomenal achievement given the British Army’s then, ahem, reluctance to countenance the GAA in Northern Ireland at all. Otherwise, Kilkenny, Wexford, Dublin, Limerick, Cork, Tipperary, Clare, Waterford and Galway have had the All-Ireland hurling championship almost to themselves since forever.

The best Laois teams have occasionally competed with the traditional counties. And Laois won the 2019 Joe McDonagh Cup in high-scoring style, managed by recent Kilkenny great Eddie Brennan. But still nobody really expected them to beat Dublin last Sunday, even with home advantage in Portlaoise’s O’Moore Park.

Competitive expectations were dampened further by Cork’s evisceration of Westmeath in the first PQF, in Mullingar. Westmeath scored a decent enough 20 points. But only because Cork eschewed defensive mindsets in favour of scoring at will. They led by 24 points to nine at half-time (no goals), suggesting a potential full-time score of 0-48, in a sport where one team’s points tally just looks WRONG when it reaches the 30s. Cork also ‘emptied their bench’ earlier than they would in a match with any competitive merit left. Thus Cork ‘only’ scored 1-40, the lightweights.

However, Laois convincingly beat Westmeath in the Joe McDonagh final a week earlier. And while Leinster’s championship had the excitement, Munster’s had the quality, especially in its top three teams, suggesting that whatever the result in Portlaoise, it would be a closer contest. It was…and how.

Laois missed two early chances, the sort that underdogs supposedly “must take all of” if they are to win. But Laois did open the scoring. Aaron Dempsey, a wonder-goal scorer against Westmeath, netted a more prosaic effort to help them to a deserved five-point interval lead. They never fell behind, scoring three quickfire points when Dublin levelled with 15 minutes left. And a last-gasp Dublin free going over the bar and not under it for a goal, was cheered louder than any of the preceding 45 scores, as Laois won by two.

National broadcaster RTE had cameras and lead commentator Ger Canning in situ for their live coverage of the football qualifier between Meath and Clare (see below) which was the first game of a Portlaoise double-bill. So they were able to give the Laois game the opening slot on the ‘Sunday Game’ highlights show, as if they’d sensed a shock all along. And Dempsey, Paddy Purcell, Willie Dunphy(CHK) and, yes, John Lennon are now names in many more households than before.

Laois may yet ‘crash back down to earth’ as they face Tipperary in Sunday’s second quarter-final. However, Dublin beat Tipperary in this year’s National League quarter-finals, so these fears for Laois may be born of the age-old view of traditional and non-traditional counties. Sundays first quarter-final, in a Croke Park double-header, pairs Cork with Kilkenny. This promises more competitiveness. But the very best wishes of perhaps the whole hurling world outside Tipp go to Eddie Brennan, John Lennon, Paddy Purcell et al…

Football’s two ‘Super-8s’ groups are now full. Mayo, Tyrone, Cork and Meath were the, largely expected, winners of the weekend’s fourth round qualifiers. And the first two teams, Tyrone especially, also qualified to be ‘genuine’ All-Ireland contenders.

Mayo’s odyssey continued, in more convincing manner than the final score or some fraught second-half minutes suggested. They overcame beaten Connacht finalists Galway by a goal in an encounter as bitter and fractious as the neighbouring Connacht counties’ decades-and-decades-old rivalry, in front of an overwhelmingly-Mayo crowd in neutral Limerick.

Mayo effectively won the game with two early goals by James Carr (no…NOT Jimmy). The first was a gift from Galway’s ‘portly’ custodian Bernard Power, one of many late changes to Galway’s team by under-pressure manager Kevin Walsh…none of which remotely worked. The second was all Carr’s, magnificent, work, already a likely goal of the season.

Galway kept vaguely in first-half touch through four points in the opening 30 minutes by Peter Cooke, who had only scored four championship points in his previous TIME in a Galway shirt. And they were kept vaguely in second-half touch by Mayo being Mayo…a paralysing fear gripping them for no logical reason whatsoever when they pulled eight points clear after half-time.

Fortunately for Mayo, Galway were sh*te, Liam Silke striking, and telegraphing the direction of, a 53rd-minute penalty so poorly that Mayo keeper David Clarke had to wait for it to arrive. Galway’s Shane Walsh netted a late free from a similar distance past Clarke AND a wall of defenders to leave three points between them with time left for another attack if they could get the ball again. They couldn’t.

Cavan could barely get the ball at all, as they were hammered by an over-physical, over-cynical but bloody brilliant Tyrone.

Tyrone and Cavan lost to Donegal in Ulster by similar and flattering margins. But there the similarity ended. Cavan may have been disadvantaged by coming into this game on the back of their Donegal defeat, while Tyrone beat Longford and Kildare to help get Donegal out of THEIR system. But that didn’t explain a tenth of the chasm between then last Saturday. Tyrone were harder, better, faster and stronger, as the song goes (I’m told). They scored points with ease where Cavan barely scored at all. Cavan’s better players didn’t perform. Tyrone’s better players never stopped performing. Oh God.

Cork, eventually, had it almost as easy against Laois, winning by 14 points to Tyrone’s 16. The sides were level for much of the first half. But then Cork’s full-forward Brian Hurley found his mojo and the scores rattled in. They led by five at half-time and when Hurley volleyed home Cork’s first goal early in the second half, the contest was over.

Not the spectacle, though. Cork football began 2019 in the mire. Poor early league form relegated them to Division Three, one level above London. So the surge in confidence from subsequent performances, particularly their surprisingly narrow Munster final defeat to Kerry, wasn’t for halting on Saturday and they bagged three more goals.

Typically sloppy defending let Laois in for some consolation scores. And observers have been ready to note that Cork have ‘only’ beaten lower-division sides in the championship, albeit convincingly on both occasions. Cork ARE such a side now, of course. But they shouldn’t be. And on Saturday, they showed that to the football world.

The most entertaining round four qualifier, if not necessarily the highest quality, was Meath’s one-point win over Clare. Meath were fractionally more convincing winners than that. But a high-scoring game remained in the balance throughout. Mistakes flowed. Yet both sides’ star quality players had spells where that quality shone.

Four brilliant first-half points from Jamie Malone drew an otherwise Gary Brennan-inspired Clare level at half-time, after Donal Keogan’s goal looked like giving Meath a decisive lead. Clare goaled early in the second half. But Meath’s mountainous Micky Newman grabbed the goal his performance deserved, injuring his head and leg as he then crashed into the unpadded post. And Clare were chasing the game thereafter.

The Super-8 groups are: Donegal, Kerry, Mayo and Meath; Dublin, Tyrone, Cork and Roscommon, And ‘they’ are assuming Tyrone/Donegal and Dublin v Kerry or Mayo semi-finals. ‘They’ may be right. Kerry at home to Mayo on Sunday looks key; Mayo the in-form team, Kerry with a strong home advantage. Meath will be second-favourites for their three games, starting with Sunday’s trip to Donegal. Donegal are expected to win their three, although their trip to Mayo on the final day also looks key.

Dublin are unbackable favourites against Roscommon and Cork in Croke Park, which is Dublin’s home AND a neutral venue. Like they need the help. Dublin’s visit to Tyrone will be a hot one, although they are both expected qualifiers. And Roscommon are expected to lose all three games, even their last one in Cork, which was assumed, not explained, by the Sunday Game pundits.

Roscommon open the Super-8s when they host Tyrone at 5pm on Saturday (live on Sky Sports Arena). And 200%’s GAA correspondent will be there. It could be gruesome, Tyrone beat us by 18 points last year in Croke Park, in the first-ever Super-8s game. But if Roscommon were to win, I wouldn’t want to be sat at home watching it. Especially not on bloody Sky.