The GAA Championship, Week 13: Hurling – “We’re Lucky To Have It”

by | Aug 1, 2018

The Gaelic Football got good, the other week. Hurling’s response? “Hold my beer.”

There should be a commemorative DVD of this year’s Munster provincial hurling championship. So, there should definitely be a DVD of the 2018 All-Ireland hurling semi-finals. I waxed lyrical about CONIFA World Football Cup semi-final day at Carshalton in early June. But that was nothing, whatsoever, on last weekend.

Even if the 19th August final is a dog, 2018’s hurling championship has sealed its place in folklore’s forefront. Clare-native RTE pundit Antony Daly said of his county’s extra-time draw with reigning champions Galway on Saturday that you could put the excitement of the entire recent World Cup “into one match and it wouldn’t come near it.” And the second semi-final, Limerick’s basket-case extra-time victory over Munster champions Cork…was…even…BETTER.

Galway began their semi-final as they began their Leinster final replay against Kilkenny, like unbackable All-Ireland title favourites. On 16 minutes, they led by nine points and were quicker, stronger and more skillful in every aspect of the game, their goal coming after a lengthy game of ‘after you, Claude’ in Clare’s full-back line as Galway’s Conor ‘Claude’ Cooney found the net.

Then Clare stuck a sweeper into their defence and, somehow, the game instantly flipped. They reduced the margin to two points shortly before half-time and their half-time deficit of four was still ‘give you right arm for it’ territory.

Half-time, though, was the tactical masterstroke. In the Munster Final, Cork emerged from their dressing-room five minutes late, letting Clare swelter in a sun so hot, especially for Ireland, that those minutes surely had a psychological AND physical impact. On Saturday, Clare kept everyone waiting. And though there was less heat, Galway were visibly irritated by the hold-up, especially the usually outwardly-calm manager Micheal O Donoghue, who was a ball of irascibility for the rest of the evening.

Clare soon levelled matters. And the match ebb-and-flowed in the most fascinating manner, Galway stretching their lead, Clare compressing it again, the last time with the last three points of normal time to send it into extra-time, as Sky commentator Dave McIntyre incorrectly insisted that Clare needed a goal. Clare’s most amazing score came when half-forward Tony Duggan was rush-hour-tube-train squashed by Galway defenders but avoided over-carrying the ball and, somehow, manufactured enough room to swing it over the bar all-but-one-handed.

Meanwhile, Galway had been fractionally over-reliant on the mercurial Joe Canning. Fortunately, Canning was ‘mercurial’ personified, pointing from everything and everywhere, including two ‘line-balls.’ An entire career’s worth of line-balls for many of hurling’s past legends. An afternoon’s work for Canning. And Galway were never behind throughout normal time. They should have won, too. They probably were the better team overall. And midfielder Johnny Coen had a very straightforward chance in stoppage-time’s last seconds. Duggan would have pointed it one-handed, eyes-shut, with his…well, let’s say nose. Coen fired yards short.

Of course, being 2018, there was still time for Clare to be denied by some literally last-gasp Galway defending before the referee blew the whistle…to avoid his heart giving out as much as to mark the passage of stoppage-time. Galway players, and the still-tetchy O Donoghue, complained that he should have added stoppage-time for the delays IN stoppage-time (although if Clare had had possession at the end, I suspect their ire would have been dampened). But, jeez lads, we ALL needed a break…

That break, a proper dressing-room affair rather than the on-field massage parlour of soccer matches, dissipated much of the game’s momentum. Clare were two points behind after the first of the two ten-minute extra-time periods, having missed a host of chances. But straight after extra-time’s half-time, they led for the first time, Aron Shanagher catching a high ball into the ‘danger area,’ turning out from goal, then swivelling and smashing an unstoppable shot which might have taken Galway’s defenders and keeper into the net with it if they’d, somehow, got in the way.

Galway needed the spirit of champions, especially as Canning limped off, having failed to recover from falling on his kneecap from some height. They found it. And, yes, you guessed it, they ‘somehow’ led as the game entered stoppage-time at the end of extra-time’s stoppage-time (of which there genuinely was about a minute), having narrowly missed a goal chance which would have clinched victory and been denied another score by ‘Hawkeye’ technology (which had denied them three earlier ‘points’).

The exact same scenario faced Clare at the end of normal time in 2013’s All-Ireland final against Cork. Then, they patiently worked the ball downfield to set up full-back (full-back!!) Domnhall O’Donovan’s impossibly dramatic equaliser (and Clare’s replay victory, the last time they even played at Croker). And, being 2018, OF COURSE it happened again, substitute half-back (half-back!!) Jason McCarthy the hero this time.

RTE Radio pundit Tomas Mulcahy screamed into his microphone: “Come on referee, blow it up, give ‘em another chance!!” The ref did (wasn’t that nice of him?). And the replay should be next Monday, a bank holiday in the Republic of Ireland, to avoid Sunday’s decisive Donegal/Tyrone superb-eights game. But it is in Thurles at 2pm on Sunday, thus overlapping with the football, considerably if there’s extra-time again.

Apropos of absolutely nothing at all, the game is live on Sky in Britain, where Monday is NOT a bank holiday. Not that Sky dictates the GAA’s fixture-scheduling. Perish THAT thought.

The GAA website called it 2018’s “greatest match yet.” But, being 2018, that accolade lasted 21-and-a-half hours. Their classic draw in the Munster Championship round-robin was arguably 2018’s ‘greatest match yet’ until the weekend. And Sunday had extra-time, which added its own sensations.

The near-incessant back-and-forth of the first-half scoring fuelled the fears of a few about modern hurling, with better hurleys and more aero-dynamic sliothars (sticks and balls to you) producing basketball-esque scoring patterns. But there was nothing to fear when the quality of scores was so high and 71,073 people roared their approval. (BTW, let’s consider how sensational a crowd that is. Nearly 10% of the counties’ combined population…imagine a quarter-of-a-million at a Manchester derby. And the 54,191 at Galway/Clare was over 14% of their populations).

Limerick forward Aaron Gillane had an innovative way of altering the scoring pattern, twice catching a high ball over his marker Colm Spillane’s head, twice dropping his hurley (not for the first and second times this season) and twice having to kick the sliothar with only keeper Anthony Nash to beat. He booted one effort high over the bar and pulled his second well wide. He should probably wear gloves.

Team-mate Cian Lynch had no such problems with his hands. They were able to flatten Cork’s Daniel Carney in the build-up to his first-half stoppage-time goal, without any officials noticing, which gave Limerick a one-point half-time lead after Cork had threatened to pull away as the interval approached.

Lynch’s goal initially appeared only to have delayed the inevitable. As they did against a heat-wilted Clare in the Munster Final, Cork pulled clear after half-time, as Limerick began to make crucial mistakes, Dan Morrissey misfielding one high ball and Conor Lehane taking the fullest advantage, rifling home Cork’s first goal of the game, on 52 minutes.

Limerick’s introduction of Shane Dowling seemed destined to be a footnote, despite the relative veteran firing over a point with about his first touch. Cork led by six with seven minutes of normal time left and while that was, just, ‘nothing in hurling,’ a bit of ‘game management’ would probably have seen them home. But…2018. Limerick rattled off six unanswered points to level a minute into stoppage-time (Sky commentator Mike Finnerty as incorrectly insistent that Limerick needed a goal as McIntyre had been about Clare on Saturday).

Limerick stayed level because of a wonder save by keeper Nicky Quaid with 128 seconds left, who somehow (that word again) denied Cork full-forward Seamus Harnedy even a shot as Limerick’s full-back line scrambled manically to plug the gaps in the gaping goal behind him. And Gillane pointed an insanely-pressurised free with 42 seconds left to seal Limerick’s place in the fina…no, don’t be silly. Being 2018. Cork won a free with 30 seconds left. And Patrick Horgan’s even more insanely-pressurised effort split the posts exactly as the clock ticked over to no seconds left.

Despite Horgan’s heroics, however, the momentum stayed with Limerick. Gillane almost-immediately missed another gilt-edged goal opportunity, despite NOT dropping the hurley, for once. But although they only led by a point at half-time in extra-time, they finally stormed away in the last eight minutes.

Super-sub Dowling was shoved in the back in the penalty area by Cork’s Mark Ellis as he prepared to smash home the probably clinching goal (for which Ellis only saw yellow, no ‘professional’ fouls in an amateur sport?). Hurling penalties are less-easily-converted than soccer ones. But, with Sky co-commentator Nicky English exhorting him to play ultra-safe and take a point, Dowling remembered that it was 2018 and nearly dismantled the goal-netting with his tracer-bullet penalty, as Nash flew in the opposite direction.

Not even ‘2018’ could save Cork now. And with four minutes left, another Limerick sub, Pat Ryan, joyously lobbed Nash for Limerick’s third goal. And the tension switched to jubilation, even after Cork grabbed a last-second consolation goal to reduce Limerick’s victory margin to four points and confirm the game’s status as the most ridiculously high-scoring match in hurling history. Until the final. Probably. Being 2018, an’ all…

Limerick haven’t won an All-Ireland title since 1973, despite always being a ‘leading hurling county.’ Their determination to keep their proverbial feet on the ground over the next three weeks was evident from the earliest post-match interviews, especially Dowling’s (who was nearly RTE’s ‘man-of-the-match,’ despite playing for only the last third of it); his insistence that “we’re not just going to get to the final to march behind the band” getting the Limerick crowd roaring some more.

Afterwards, RTE pundit and ex-Waterford star Ken McGrath declared that “hurling and Love Island were the things of the summer.” For those for whom ‘Love Island’ can foxtrot oscar, Roy Curtis, the Sunday World newspaper’s chief sports writer, typed, with “tears streaming from my eyes. So many narrow definitions of what it is to be Irish. But, Christ almighty, this beautiful thing.” And you could (almost) forget that the World is a populist tabloid as he added: “Oh, hurling, though art divine” (he surely meant “thou”). “A visceral sense of identity, belonging, scream-out-loud joy. The soul soars.”

However, Irish comedian Dara O Briain nailed it as he “(stumbled) breathless out of Croke Park for the second day in-a-row,” declaring hurling the “greatest sport in the world, lads. We’re lucky to have it.” Against which, after a hurling weekend like…THAT, it was absolutely impossible to argue.