GAA Championship, Week Six – Familiar Final Fours

by | Aug 6, 2021

2021’s Gaelic Football and Hurling championships each have four teams left, after last weekend produced one insanely high-scoring hurling match (even for this defence-shredding season) and more evidence that Dublin’s football dominance might be diminishing, even if it feels like tempting fate just to type that.

Both sports’ semi-final pairings include repeats of last December’s finals, though repeat results are far from guaranteed. Dublin’s footballers won their ELEVENTH consecutive Leinster Football final, to qualify for (yet) another Croke Park meeting with Mayo, a repeat of four of the last eight finals. However, last weekend centred on Waterford’s hurling quarter-final win over Tipperary in Cork, which facilitated a third meeting in nine months with Limerick, to whom they lost 2020’s Munster AND All-Ireland finals.

After ten minutes, the scoring rate was more akin to basketball. Despite both sides’ shooting being intermittently off-beam, there was another ‘full-time score at half-time,’ as Waterford led by 2-14 to 2-13, a bigger aggregate points total, 39, than in 17 of the last 50 All-Ireland finals. AND there was a stunning finish. Because of course there was.

Waterford were seven-up with nine minutes plus stoppage-time left. And RTE commentator Ger Canning thought they still had “a nice advantage,” as Tipp cut the lead to four with three minutes left. Only when Tipp pointed again, 30 seconds later, did the enormity of events dawn on him, as he exclaimed that “we’re suddenly down to a one-score game.”

It would have been a one-POINT game had sub John McGrath not been denied by a fabulous block from Waterford defender Ian Kenny when Tipp were five behind. Indeed, Tipp could/should have been ahead as once-star forward Seamus Callanan toe-ended a glorious goal chance 12 minutes earlier. As it was, Tipp entered stoppage time two behind, after current star forward Jason Forde pointed a free. Then Waterford sub Neil Montgomery broke the run of four Tipp points, before matters swung to-and-fro like a coke-addled pendulum.

McGrath was through again. And with houses across Ireland being (as per commentary cliché) ‘put’ on him netting, his fizzed shot was acrobatically top-edged OVER the bar by Waterford keeper Shaun O’Brien. O’Brien’s puck-out then cleared Tipp’s defence and found Montgomery, who morphed from sub-to-supersub by lashing the ball into the net. And Montgomery and fellow sub Colin Dunford added two more points, to stretch Waterford’s lead to seven…which is where we came in.

Despite the ridiculous aggregate score of 73 points, the game didn’t quite dislodge the Munster final as game-of-the-year-to-date, as the sky-high scoring was part-attributable to loose marking. “We could do with a bit more physicality,” RTE pundit Henry Shefflin suggested at half-time, possibly correctly, though the Kilkenny legend was perhaps desperate to mask Munster hurling’s superiority to Leinster hurling in this championship, which was being so thrillingly demonstrated again.

Waterford had out-exploded their explosive start against Galway, only to concede two goals in-a-minute to Callanan, the first an expert finish, the second a comical combo of half-blocked shot and flight misjudgement. Waterford soon netted themselves as the scoreboard screamed for a rest. And their second goal, on 21 minutes, came courtesy of referee Colm Lyons twice applying an advantage rule which changed last year, although attempts to attach controversy to this foundered on almost every observer preferring the old law.

Controversy was superglued to Waterford’s third goal, though, Stephen Bennett crashing home a penalty awarded for…well…something, presumably. Tipp’s Michael Breen knocking Austin Gleeson’s hurl out of his hand, RTE Sunday Game pundit and ex-Tipp keeper Brendan Cummins concluded, unconvinced, after about 94 views. And Waterford led by eight at the second-half water-break, after Tipp had again ‘lost the third quarter.’

This time it was by ‘only’ seven points, rather than the dozen by which Limerick disembowelled them in the Munster final. But you have to wonder whether Tipp boss Liam Sheedy’s bug-eyed touchline histrionics are proper psychological preparation for half-time team talks. Tipp were steadied by the water-break, as so many teams still are, which led to the outlandish finish. But, just like Galway, their storming finish wasn’t quite enough.

Tipp scored ONE HUNDRED points (7-79) in their three 2021 Championship matches. And their 33 points-per-game average would have won FORTY-NINE of the last fifty All-Irelands (the 50th being Tipp’s own 34 points in 2019). It gained them one win this year…and not even an All-Ireland semi-final spot. Waterford, meanwhile, have improved beyond recognition since being flatter than an ironed Netherlands in losing to Clare, and edging past Laois just a fortnight ago.

So good are they under Tipperary native and ex-Tipp player Liam Cahill, who has also managed Tipp underage squads to two All-Ireland titles, that the odds on he being Tipp’s next senior team supremo have almost audibly shortened. But I suspect that Waterford fans might respond to the notion that the Waterford job is a stepping stone to the Tipp job by citing this result alongside a “f**k you.”

Cork beat Dublin by eight points in Thurles, in what was the “other” quarter-final even before the madness IN Cork. Dublin’s Covid-related absentees in their Leinster final loss all returned. But they were still missing injured full-back Eoghan O’Donnell. And they DID miss him. Yet matters might have been different had they fully capitalised on Cork starting as if still suffering from the figurative and actual heat of their battle against Clare six days earlier.

Dublin spurned two goal half-chances in the first four minutes. Chris Crummy applied nominative determinism to his shooting. And Cork led by two points at the water break thanks to a stunning solo effort from Tim O’Mahony, who ran from his half-back position, swerved a comical effort at a shoulder charge by Dublin’s Liam Rushe and crashed the ball to the net.

Cork led thereafter, and all-but-ensured victory just before half-time, Shane Kingston swiping the loose ball into the net after Patrick Horgan made an uncharacteristic hames of Robbie O’Flynn’s crossfield pass. Dublin were only four behind on 64 minutes. And a Dublin win from there would have meant ANOTHER classic. However, all four remaining points were Cork’s. Which was about right.

Kilkenny and Cork are old school semi-finalists; the top two in hurling’s All-Ireland title roll of honour, though Cork’s last win was in 2005 and Kilkenny haven’t been competitive in a final, let alone won one, since 2015. Limerick and Waterford are new skool. Waterford are becoming semi-final regulars while Limerick have won three consecutive Munster titles for the first time since 1935. Munster’s champions have won the Mick Mackey Cup since 1990. And Mackey himself played in that mid-30s team.

Both semis look to close to call. Honest. Limerick and Waterford have both hit top form at the right time; but only for one half and a game-and-a-half respectively. Waterford have a gap to close from 2020, but revenge to seek FOR 2020. Meanwhile, the outcome of Kilkenny/Cork hinges on how big any quality gap is between Munster and Leinster.

Limerick/Waterford throws-in at 5pm Saturday, Kilkenny/Cork at 3.30pm Sunday. Both are live on Sky Sports Arena. And ‘semi-final weekends’ have been classics since their 2018 introduction. Evidence points to a continuation of that nascent tradition, even if it feels like tempting fate just to type that.

Like its championship, Ulster’s football final was a cut above the other three provinces, albeit that this bar was low enough to challenge the best limbo dancers. Veteran Ulster football critic Pat Spillane said during his RTE pre-match punditry that “if Tinder did provincial champions (sic), I’d be swiping right to Ulster.” This didn’t convince anyone that he quite knew what that meant. And RTE missed a trick in not advising him to “Say Grindr. It’ll have more impact.” Which would have been no lie.

Monaghan also missed a trick. Tyrone were Covid-depleted, missing three players and joint-manager Feargal Logan. But Monaghan were tentative and inaccurate in the first half, missing three scoreable chances as Tyrone went six ahead in ten first-half minutes during which they kicked long and short to entertaining effect. One Mattie Donnelly point stood out, as he sent his marker “to the shop for a Snickers,” according to RTE pundit (and clearly a Mars sales rep) Sean Kavanagh, who couldn’t hide his frustration that Tyrone weren’t so direct “when I played inside (forward)” for them.

The game drifted disappointingly before the break. But from their first kick-pass forward after it, Monaghan looked sharper and more physical (which would have delighted RTE co-commentator Tomas O Se, who had complained, after just 10 minutes, that “there hasn’t been a good belt yet”). Tyrone’s lead dissolved in 15 minutes. Monaghan’s new attitude was exemplified when they hit the same post twice before winning and converted a free…in the SAME attack. And keeper Rory Beggan was among the post-hitters, which was little surprise.

Beggan and Tyrone’s Niall Morgan are among football keenest “rush goalies.” In this first half, Morgan played wing-back to, successfully, defend Beggan’s long kick-outs. And Beggan out-Morganed Morgan after half-time. Gaelic Football’s rules let keepers seamlessly become outfielders. So, Morgan and, especially, Beggan did. Beggan was denied a wonder point by ‘Hawkeye’ technology having NO soul. And his last-minute recovery run to brilliantly dispossess Donnelly after Monaghan lost the ball when he was 60 yards upfield, might be the (football) season’s highlight . O Se laughed. For some time.

By then, though, Tyrone were one-up again, and held on by playing keep-ball for the final 90 seconds, as trademarked by Dublin in recent years. Tyrone are no Dublin. But they will face Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final confident that Kerry won’t score six goals, as they did in the sides’ National League semi-final just seven weeks ago.

And Dublin are no Dublin just now. They played keep-ball for long spells of their frankly weird Leinster final win over Kildare. But these started halfway through the second half, when their tactic appeared to be to bore everyone rigid and start scoring when the snoring started. This ‘worked.’ But Sunday offered no indication of how they might fare against the better opposition which now awaits.

Long-time keeper Stephen Cluxton has still not indicated whether he will join this year’s panel. And with literally one or two games left, this silence is a joke which is becoming no joke. Fortunately, ‘new’ keeper Evan Comerford has benefitted from being Cluxton’s understudy for four years. And, anyway, Kildare were in no mood, or form, to test him.

Kildare expended huge time and energy merely to open the scoring. Yet while Dublin fashioned their chances a little easier, they still looked more like a Dublin tribute band. Multi All-Ireland winners such as Dean Rock and Ciaran Kilkenny mishit chances they’d been converting since they were kids. Kildare habitually landed shots short from scoring positions. Yet though Kildare also tired as half-time neared and failed to score for the 12 minutes before it, Dublin’s interval lead was just four.

Kildare expended less time and energy opening the second-half scoring, with a fine point by their best player, Daniel Flynn. But their energy almost visibly dissipated six minutes after half-time when Daniel’s brother Luke missed an easy shot from in front of the posts. And Dublin’s lead was out to seven by the second-half water-break, as they began to ‘patiently’ (tediously) create and take their scoring opportunities.

Kildare’s last moment was Daniel Flynn’s 62nd-minute goal (of the season, I’d guess). He robbed James McCarthy, ran past/through ‘teak-tough’ defender Johnny Cooper and thumped a 20-yarder across goal which would have bulged the net even if Comerford AND Cluxton were guarding it. Flynn runs in an odd shape. But he was an articulate interviewee when he received his man-of-the-match award (how often does a player on a well-beaten team merit that?). And stardom surely awaits him.

So, football’s semi-finalists definitely include the Championship’s three best teams…and very arguably the four. Last year’s championship produced some wonderful provincial title-winning which, in turn, produced two wonderless semi-finals. Here’s to a role reversal this year.