The GAA Championship: Wexford’s Wonders

by | Jul 5, 2019

2019’s provincial championships are over; in football, possibly forever. All ‘back doors’ are shut. Beaten teams in both football and hurling are now gone for the summer. And the story of All-Ireland glory REALLY starts.

Traditionally, Munster hurling final day is “one of the biggest days in Ireland’s sporting calendar.” But under hurling’s new structure, it is also Leinster final day.

Both provincial finals summed up their championships; Munster showcasing a quality performance at the expense of competitiveness, Leinster producing sound, fury and a fraught finish.

Tipperary dominated Munster’s round-robin series. So Sunday’s 12-point trimming was no surprise. That Limerick administered this beating, even with home advantage, was. Tipp were missing two key players through late injury. But that didn’t explain everything.

Limerick looked more like All-Ireland champions than they did even when becoming champions. And the hype which accompanied Tipp into Sunday transferred to them. Star Tipp forward Seamus Callinan briefly fell out of Limerick defender Sean Finn’s pocket when his 17th-minute goal, a great solo effort, put Tipp five ahead.

But Finn soon stuffed Callinan back in his back pocket. Diminutive-yet-slightly-portly forward Peter Casey dived full-length to net Aaron Gillane’s excellent pass on 25 minutes to help Limerick to a two-point interval lead despite playing into a stiffish breeze. John McGrath’s fabulous 44th-minute goal levelled matters again. But Limerick doubled their score in the last 26 minutes. Tipp didn’t.

Tipperary keeper Ben Hogan sensationally denied Gearoid Hegarty a minute after Casey’s goal. While Nicky Quaid’s big right boot denied Callinan again on 57 minutes, soon after Casey superbly set up Kyle Hayes for Limerick’s second goal. But Limerick were brilliant in every department.

Wexford manager Davy Fitzgerald is a ‘legendary’ lots of things. Not all of them good. But last Sunday his team clinched their first Leinster title since 2004 with a legendary win over biggest rivals Kilkenny at Croke Park.

The sides breathlessly traded points before Wexford keeper Mark Fanning’s decisive 64th-minute penalty. But Wexford played slicker hurling and found scoring easier throughout. Conor McDonald and Rory O’Connor scored two wonder-points from the sideline and Lee Chin landed frees from all over Dublin. Kilkenny again over-relied on TJ Reid. And even he missed twice from tight angles. Wexford missed two chances all game.

(RTE pundit Donal O’Grady wasn’t having fun. “The game hasn’t really taken off” he said, before half-time, moaning that it was only “puck-outs, little bits of play, lots of scores,” like that was a bad thing. O’Grady is a knowledgeable hurling man. But he can’t half talk sh*te).

Reid grabbed his own wonder-point to put Kilkenny one-up with nine minutes left. But Wexford responded instantly, O’Connor running through Kilkenny like a knife through butter…no…soup before being rugby-tackled to the penalty-area ground. Fanning, as Fitzgerald often did in his goalkeeping days, came up to take the penalty and, as Fitzgerald often did…slammed it home.

Kilkenny panicked late on, scrambling three times for goals when three points would have drawn the game (in the first half, Reid inexplicably passed-up an easy free to try, and fail, to work a goal). But only the spirit instilled by manager Brian Cody kept them remotely in the hunt. They really aren’t very good at all just now. And the closest they came was Colin Fennelly kicking the ball wide from the depth of a stoppage-time goalmouth bundle. But as Kilkenny don’t even ENTER the football championship, the world would have run out of irony if Fennelly hadn’t missed.

Fitzgerald has now ‘won everything’ in hurling, as player and manager with his native Clare and Waterford and Wexford manager. Cody, of course, has won everything HE can about 94 times. But ‘Davy Fitz.’ despite having ‘crossed the line’ so often that the chalk is stuck to his shoes, is writing his own legend.

Laois will replace Carlow in 2020’s Leinster championship after deservedly beating Westmeath in a hugely entertaining final, of hurling’s second-tier Joe McDonagh Cup competition, which was a Leinster final curtain-raiser and was thus played when the Munster final was on. So, moments such as Aaron Dunphy’s wonder-goal for Laois were largely missed outside early arrivals at Croker. Comically-inept scheduling , but all-too-typically GAA.

Laois already look slightly better-equipped than Carlow to survive in that championship, especially in the forwards. They are managed by Eddie Brennan, a star forward in Kilkenny’s galaxy of star hurlers under Cody’s tutelage and, among hurling observers putting two and two together, Cody’s likeliest successor.

So, hurling’s ‘All-Ireland series’ is ‘clear.’ On Sunday, Laois host Dublin and Westmeath (host) Cork in ‘preliminary’ quarter-finals, the winners meeting provincial runners-up Tipp and Kilkenny respectively in the next weekend’s ‘actual’ quarter-finals. Those winners will meet Limerick and Wexford, if they haven’t already, in the All-Ireland semis. And even I can work it out from there to the final.

Football’s championship is down to a defiant dozen, aka Dublin and 11 others. The third-round qualifiers produced two nail-biters, a refreshingly free-scoring Leinster ‘derby,’ and an ominously strong performance from Tyrone, now written back on, having been written off after their Ulster semi-final dismantling by Donegal. And the fourth-round draw produced two very eagerly anticipated derbies and a slightly-ajar door into the ‘Super-8s’ for two teams outside Ireland’s top-eight.

Mayo and Clare edged to one-point wins over Armagh and Westmeath respectively. Clare were inspired by talismanic midfielder Gary Brennan, whose status as one of the best footballers in Ireland for YEARS is masked by Clare’s relatively low status in football’s pecking order. Mayo were ‘inspired,’ some might say (and have), by uninspiring officiating. As Armagh’s combative manager Kieran McGeeney, wearing his sarky boots with pride, told Sky’s Damian Lawlor in a genuinely interesting post-match interview: “When you’re infallible, you never learn from your mistakes.”

Armagh were sawn-off by an allegedly very premature end to second-half stoppage-time, having been at the arse-end of contentious decisions all evening. Five minutes and 25 seconds of the announced minimum four minutes’ stoppage-time were added. But McGeeney identified “ten or eleven head injuries” in the second half. And RTE pundit and former…Mayo player Kevin McStay put “a stopwatch” to a tape of the game for his analysis on the “Sunday Game” highlights show and unearthed TEN minutes of the stuff.

Andy Moran picked the ball off the ground (which outfield players can’t do) before setting Fionn McDonagh up for Mayo’s first goal. But their poor finishing was as costly. Jamie Clarke should have netted straight after Mayo’s second goal but scuffed his shot to let Mayo keeper David Clarke push the ball onto the post. And Rory Grugan later fired over the bar of an open goal.

Mayo, though, were pinpoint-accurate after half-time. And a magnificent 52nd-minute individual goal by Kevin McLaughlin helped clinch a victory without the second-half services of the injured Moran and the heart of Mayo’s recent teams, Lee Keegan. Mayo now play Connacht rivals Galway, who beat them in 2016…and 2017…AND 2018. As Sunday Game presenter Des Cahill noted: “The Mayo odyssey continues.”

Clare were a point ahead in stoppage-time in Westmeath, when Brennan twice touched the skies to catch high balls and retain crucial possession. Brennan beat Roscommon almost single-handedly in 2016’s fourth round qualifier. But while they were well beaten by Kerry in the quarter-final, this year they possess another unsung talent, Jamie Malone. And they’ll face Meath next Sunday with legitimate confidence.

Laois’s good GAA weekend continued with their footballers’ five-point win over neighbours Offaly. Both sides played in 2019’s National League Division Three. And some observers have been a bit sniffy about Laois being one win from the Super-8s. Laois are now in Division Two. The team they’ll play for a Super-8s place? Cork, who will be in Division…Three.

Last and…most…Tyrone. Tyrone will play Roscommon in the first Super-8s round (13th July, 5pm, 200%’s GAA correspondent will be there). Not because round-four opponents, Cavan, are a lesser team. They aren’t. But because…of course they will. Tyrone have met Roscommon four times since 2011. So, though Cavan/Tyrone is too close to call, destiny will prevail.

Tyrone routinely despatched Kildare last Saturday, returning to their old ‘defensive’ system after their new-fangled attacking one foundered on Donegal rocks in Ulster, yet racking up a hurling score to beat far-from-completely hapless opponents by ten points. Michael Cassidy scored an early goal, Darren McCurry scored a late one, and in-between Tyrone kept Kildare at arms-length almost like tall people do to short people in cartoons.

It would arguably be good for football if Cavan won on Saturday. Not because they are less capable of beating Roscommon. They aren’t. It’s just that Tyrone have been destined to meet AND beat Roscommon over the years (by 18 points last year, which justified RTE controversialist Joe Brolly’s assertion that Roscommon were in the Super-8s “by mistake”).

Tyrone were 2018 All-Ireland finalists after using the semi-final to avenge a first-round Ulster championship defeat to Monaghan. This year’s Super-8s draw facilitates possible revenge on Donegal. As does the ease of Tyrone’s win last Saturday. Eeeek.