GAA Championship: The Best Sport In The World

by | Aug 1, 2019

Last year’s All-Ireland hurling semi-final weekend was sensational. This year’s couldn’t possibly match it. Could it? Why, yes. Yes it could. No extra-time this year. But, with the notable exception of full-frontal nudity, pretty much everything else.

SATURDAY NIGHT: KILKENNY 1-21 (24) LIMERICK 2-17 (23)

“And Limerick should beat Kilkenny…but…well…Brian Cody.” The famous (ahem) last words to my GAA round-up last week. And…well…Brian Cody. I wonder who will play Kilkenny’s manager in the film. Actually, no I don’t. Cody can probably do that as well. And direct the bloody thing. AND win both Oscars.

Kilkenny’s one-point dethronement of 2018’s All-Ireland champions last Saturday evening was, as semi-breathless Sky Sports pundit Jamesie O’Connor noted, an “exhausting” watch. In the best possible way. Both sides pressed, harried and relentlessly retrieved possession, like Barcelona at their Guardiola-coached height, denying space to the most talented forwards, whose talent still shone sufficiently to place this epic alongside the many GREAT All-Ireland semi-finals of recent years.

Kilkenny led on xx seconds and led by nine points after just 16 minutes. But Limerick cut that lead to two shortly before half-time. Kilkenny then led by five with seven minutes left and SHOULD have led by six. But Limerick cut THAT lead to one in stoppage-time and SHOULD have had the chance to take the game to extra-time with normal-time stoppage-time’s very last puck. But…

Limerick sub Darragh O’Donovan took a line-ball (hurling’s throw-in equivalent) from where Kilkenny talisman TJ Reid had fabulously pointed one on eight minutes. O’Donovan’s conceivably point-bound effort looped just wide but was clearly deflected out for a ‘65’ (hurling’s corner equivalent). Line-balls are taken from the ground, making it very difficult to get height on them, let alone point them from, remember, the touchline. Players can lift a 65 before striking it. And one as close to being in front of the posts as the one Limerick should have had would be a likely score.

“We knew it was after taking a touch,” Limerick boss John Kiely said later. But the linesman, close enough to hear the deflection let alone see it, even over the noise of a delightfully-precise 55,001 crowd, heard and saw nothing. Likewise referee Alan Kelly. The umpires behind the goal signalled a wide as O’Donovan and well-placed team-mates complained frantically but justifiably. And Limerick’s title was gone, as the one remaining puck was now Kilkenny keeper Eoin Murphy’s puck-OUT.

Anxious to fit the ‘Kilkenny were the better side’ narrative, Sky presenter Brian Carney claimed “It wasn’t the winning and losing of the game.” However. it WAS the “losing of the game” for Limerick. Still, you couldn’t credit Cody for any of the last-gasp drama, unless he could control the linesman’s mind, sight and hearing simultaneously AND timeously. And not even Cody has THAT much power. Not from the other side of the pitch, anyway.

“Everybody has a plan until you get punched in the mouth,” ex-Clare hurler O’Connor disturbingly noted, ostensibly in praise of Kilkenny’s early intensity but maybe recalling bitter personal experience. And by the time Limerick got into their stride, they were 1-8 to 0-2 adrift. Colin Fennelly batted in a similar goal to his quarter-final effort against Cork and Kilkenny’s usually malfunctioning forwards mostly functioned. While Limerick’s ‘shooting sticks’ were propped up against the same wall as Mayo and Meath footballers’ shooting boots six days earlier.

Limerick reduced the gap to five as the answer to ‘Kilkenny can’t keep THIS pace going, can they?’ emerged as ‘no.’ And the gap became two in first-half stoppage-time, Aaron Gillane drilling a fierce penalty into the net past a leaping-about Eoin Murphy after Huw Lawlor’s lean over Gillane was the first foul spotted by referee Kelly, though far from the first foul of the duo’s brief encounter.

With that momentum, Limerick were warm favourites. But…well…Brian Cody. Scores were traded as intensity levels increased from frightening to “WTF???” (“Paddy Deegan has just been shoulder-charged in the face,” Sky commentator Dave McIntyre noted matter-of-factly). But Limerick could not equalise and a burst of Kilkenny scores pushed them five points clear with ten minutes left.

‘Nothing in hurling,’ of course, especially to Limerick, who were eight points behind exactly a year ago against Cork but won after extra-time. Reid had a middle-distance free nearly in front of the posts. And a six-point gap in such a ferociously tight game would have been ‘quite a bit in hurling.’ But he missed, his only placed-ball fail of the day. And on 64 minutes, Limerick’s portly supersub Shane Dowling tennis-smashed a remarkable goal from ‘go for a point’ range to re-close the gap to two.

Yet Limerick STILL couldn’t equalise. Kilkenny sub James Maher scored Kilkenny’s last point. Eoin Murphy saved Limerick sub David Reidy’s goalbound stoppage-time shot. And Kilkenny full-back Huw Lawlor dived insanely into the mix to clear the loose ball for what proved Limerick’s last 65, as an allergy to awarding 65s gripped the relevant match officials at precisely the right time.

No doorway in Ireland could have accommodated Cody’s immediate post-match grin. And this victory is already being lauded as even his best, despite ‘only’ being a semi-final (and he’s won 16 of the bloody things). Partly because Limerick are still brilliant and were brilliant at times even on Saturday. And partly because…well…this Kilkenny side is still a bit sh*t in places. But…well…Brian Cody.

Tipperary and Wexford’s response? “Hold my beer.”

SUNDAY AFTERNOON: TIPPERARY 1-28 (31) WEXFORD 3-20 (29)

You couldn’t buy Wexford’s position, at 4.48pm on Sunday. Five points and a man up with 19 minutes left. However epic an All-Ireland semi-final they were in, surely it couldn’t be epic enough for Tipperary to win from…there? After Saturday and 2018, we should have known better than to even ask.

Tipp/Wexford was hurling as chaos theory. We had all the ‘usual’ high skill and unscriptably-dramatic plot twists. And Kilkenny referee Sean Cleere found wondrously innovative ways to avoid Tipperary goals AND Tipperary red cards.

It seemed odd to appoint a Kilkenny ref to a game involving Kilkenny’s arch Leinster rivals Wexford. But Tipp are just as ‘arch,’ Kilkenny rivals…arguably archer historically. It would be like appointing a Man United fan to a ‘modern Man City’ v Liverpool game. And Cleere had an ‘interesting’ afternoon. But I doubt any other ref could have coped any better with this match.

Wexford led on 12 seconds. And all-comers scored as Tipp’s left flank defended like poltergeists on a lunch-break, full-back Liam Ryan running miles before landing a wonder-point almost submerged by the dramas to come. However, Tipp’s mercurial forward Seamus Callanan scored a wonder-goal because of course he did (he scored a 2015 semi-final hat-trick and Tipp still lost). And Wexford led by only two after a stupidly high-scoring first-half, Darragh Maloney’s RTE commentary getting so excitedly high-pitched that only dogs heard it all.

Tipp had two first-half goals disallowed. The first was for a standard push on a defender’s back. But there ‘standard’ ended. Then Croke Park’s ‘Hawk-Eye’ system was somehow unable to tell Cleere, until after John McGrath had skilfully netted at the other end, that a monster-range free by Wexford’s Lee Chin went over the bar before Tipp keeper Brian Hogan spectacularly retrieved it (the one other GAA ‘Hawk-Eye’ system, at Tipp’s Semple Stadium, is way slower…the point might not have been given there yet).

Still, Tipp turned a four-point 26th-minute deficit into a 40th-minute lead, the despair on Wexford boss Davy Fitzgerald’s face visualising the thoughts of, outside Tipperary, a nation. Then, on 44 minutes, despair for Tipp…we thought. John McGrath should have seen red not yellow for a wild swing which nearly made a nominative determinist of Wexford’s Damien Reck. But, as McGrath was on a yellow, Cleere’s leniency, and his own gob-smacking protestations of innocence, couldn’t save him.

Wexford, initially, took advantage of their man advantage, despite being refused a penalty when Ronan Maher felled Conor McDonald with a throw which would have been worth a fair few points in Judo. And Chin’s solo run and long-range shot, a daisy-cutter until bounced over Hogan and into the net, put them into unbuyable control…which is where we came in.

The most significant refereeing mis-step then came when Tipp’s Barry Heffernan jabbed his hurley into Diarmaid O’Keeffe’s midriff. Cleere was nearby but looking elsewhere. Wexford’s Shaun Murphy was nearer-by but looking elsewhere. And on seeing O’Keeffe on the deck, Murphy exacted less-violent retribution on an innocently by-standing Ger Browne. In 15-a-side sport, playing with 13 is manageable, as Tipp would prove. Thirteen? Doubtful.

Thus reprieved, Tipp drew level with five unanswered points, because, as both managers and most pundits agreed later, Tipp’s man-light forward line found more space (no…me neither). So, obviously, Wexford goaled again on the hour, Chin’s low cross agitatedly bundled into the net by McDonald. McDonald was ‘in the square,’ the…er…rectangle in front of goal which is the preserve of keepers unless/until the ball is in it too. But as he got there half-a-nanosecond after the ball, Cleere correctly gave the goal after consulting his umpires.

It was all downhill for Cleere, and Wexford, thereafter. Three unanswered points drew Tipp level again. And though Wexford led as stoppage-time started, Tipp then goaled again. Or, rather, didn’t goal again. THIS time, a now understandably frazzled Cleere gave everything BUT the goal (everyone was frazzled by this stage, Maloney convinced he was “in the middle of coming towards the end of a gripping encounter”).

Cleere signalled for a penalty as Ryan and Callanan met under a dropping ball, momentarily forgetting hurling’s excellent advantage rule, where Tipp could have five seconds to goal anyway and Cleere could give the penalty if they didn’t. Tipp’s Jake Morris did goal. But Cleere disallowed it. Whatever Tipperary manager Liam Sheedy threw to the ground is now dead. And THEN Cleere decided, correctly, that the long-ago was just outside the penalty area. The TV cameras didn’t dare show Sheedy again. However, Jason Forde pointed the free which was awarded in the penalty’s stead. And two more unanswered points saw Tipp home.

Fitzgerald replaced his usual crypto-surly post-match interview style with class and grace. Even RTE’s ‘Sunday Game’ panel flew to his defence, albeit somewhat bizarrely, after he was criticised for his tactics after McGrath’s dismissal. Former Fitzgerald assistant Donal Og Cusack claimed that critics of “innovation” in hurling, as personified by Fitzgerald, came from “the last remnants of British culture on these islands,” because…erm… “That was lively,” noted presenter Des Cahill, looking like he’d be glad to see Joe Brolly back.

Anyway…after three years bowing to hurling’s nouveau-riche, those age-oldest rivals Kilkenny and Tipperary are back. And while neither were provincial champions, Tipperary/Kilkenny is always ‘something.’ Tipp had a blip (sorry) in form after a blistering start to the summer. And they were blistering again on Sunday, which will likely make them favourites for the 18th August final. But…well…Brain Cody.