The GAA Championship: Kilkenny’s Reliance On Reid

Last weekend brought more genuine Ulster football thrills and more one-sided Munster hurling. But Leinster produced hurling’s game of the year to date. And its championship goes right down to what Sky Sports would advertise as “Super Saturday” if they gave a stuff about Gaelic Games (unproven, that). Oh…and Fermanagh exited the football championship in achingly trademark fashion. So, at least one controversialist pundit called Joe will be happier/less miserable.

Galway beat Kilkenny by a point in a physical fascinating Leinster hurling championship match with moments of the sheerest quality from each team’s outstanding player on the day. The sides now have to avoid defeat next Saturday to set up a repeat clash in the Leinster final. And whilst Wexford and Dublin are still contenders, a Galway/Kilkenny repeat would surely be the neutrals’ current choice.

Both teams have had obvious recent talismans. Galway’s Joe Canning and Kilkenny’s Thomas Joseph (‘TJ’) Reid. Reid’s 2019 scoring record has matched Waterford’s entire team after three games. Meanwhile, Canning isn’t due back from long-term injury for some weeks. So Galway required a new talisman on Sunday. Enter Cathal Mannion.

Galway went into Sunday in stinking form. But Mannion was inspirational, scoring from all over Kilkenny’s Nowlan Park. And Galway’s previous under-performers performed. It was Kilkenny’s first home championship defeat since 1949. Not as remarkable as it sounds as big Leinster championship matches, especially in recent times, were often at Croke Park. But it has re-ignited Galway.

They should have won by more. But…Brian Cody, as I wrote last year. I asked a Kilkenny friend who preceded Cody as Kilkenny boss, in 1998. He couldn’t remember…or envisage anyone else in the role. Such presence begets authority and tactical wisdom. And Cody has also instilled an allergy to accepting defeat, which on Sunday nearly saved Kilkenny and might have brought them an, unwarranted, victory if the referee had managed stoppage-time correctly.

Two-and-a-quarter minutes of four minutes’ stoppage-time elapsed before Reid pointed a free awarded 14 seconds into it. This left Kilkenny two points behind. And they pointed again with 30 seconds of the four minutes left AND had possession again when the ref ended the game, adding only 14 of the 135 seconds wasted on bookings, substitutions and general faffing around. Even a draw would have been a steal, though.

Galway played with a strong first-half breeze. And while much pre-match debate centred on who, not if, Galway would choose to man-mark Reid, their choice appeared to be the Invisible Man’s twin brother. So Galway only had a three-point wind-assisted half-time lead.

However, Kilkenny’s Paul Murphy was booked early on. And this doomed his attempt to halt Conor Whelan’s march to Galway’s first-half goal AND ended his afternoon when his inability to avoid Brian Concannon’s charge towards him on 48 minutes was deemed conscious. But Galway were already on top, Mannion as brilliant into the wind as with it and the team looking for the first time in 2019 like the 2017 All-Ireland winners and 2018 runners-up.

Concannon goaled 90 seconds later to leave Galway eight clear with 20 minutes left. Nine minutes later, with the gap down to six, Reid goaled again because of course he did. But Galway’s half-time sub Johnny Coen cancelled that out almost immediately, after a great move involving all of Galway’s best forwards.

It was 14-a-side a minute later when Galway’s John Hanbury used Ger Aylward’s neck as a place to temporarily hang his hurl. But four minutes later, Aylward received a second yellow card when he clashed with Aidan Harte after Harte tripped him (Harte arguably deserving two yellows for his dual-role in that mini-series). There were now three points between them. But Kilkenny were only given time to pull two of them back.

Reid scored 2-11, a phenomenal individual tally, even for a ‘free-taker’ who gets regular free shots, especially as he got 2-4 from open play. But Kilkenny’s over-reliance on Reid was never more obvious. For some time, Kilkenny’s other forwards have been relatively hopeless. Yet, even accounting for how history is written by the winners, Mannion was Sunday’s star. It was tempting to ask “Joe who?” after the match. But everyone remembers well who Joe is. And, as many observers observed, “Joe will be back soon.”

Whatever Munster hurling’s competitive deficit to date, Tipperary, Cork and now reigning All-Ireland champions Limerick’s stellar form has been as responsible for that as Waterford and Clare’s inadequacies.

Cork’s Saturday night 13-point win over Waterford was odd, on-field and off. A Waterford walloping was assumed and they excused some regulars another humiliation, while Sky Sports also ‘rested’ some regulars. The crowd was large but largely silent. And the game was high-scoring but often low-quality, with Cork sharp up front but sh*te in defence. Cork’s Patrick Horgan, though, was brilliant, as per. ‘Hurler of the year’ will be a stonking competition.

Surprisingly to those not paying attention (me), a Limerick loss at home to Clare on Sunday would have exited them from the entire All-Ireland championship. But by full-time, Limerick were back in title-retention contention (sorry). They began superbly. Yet for all their attacking verve, defender Sean Finn was man-of-the-match, blocking two near-certain early Clare goals, one with his outstretched hurl, the other with his head.

Only one Clare player scored in the first half-hour, only three had scored by the end, and they only scored five points from play in total. While all six Limerick forwards had scored by first-half stoppage-time (led by their ‘hurler-of-the-year’ entry Aaron Gillane). Eleven men-in-green were on the final scoresheet, there were stars everywhere and after RTE’s pundits gushed over Limerick’s display, presenter Joanne Cantwell marvelled at 2018’s ‘hurler-of-the-year,’ Cian Lynch, not being mentioned.

Clare were woeful after half-time, for the second consecutive week. And woe was etched all over RTE pundit, and Clare hurling legend, Anthony Daly’s face. And yet…Clare will reach the All-Ireland series if they win at home to a Cork side looking for their third Munster title in-a-row, and Limerick win in Tipperary. That would leave Tipp and Limerick as Munster finalists, with Clare beating Cork to third on the ‘head-to-head’ rule, despite an atrocious scoring difference. But however ‘funny’ an ‘old game’ hurling is, it surely isn’t THAT funny.

Galway top Leinster’s table with five points. Wexford and Kilkenny have four and Dublin three. And if Galway lose in Dublin, unlikely but possible, and Kilkenny draw in Wexford, on Saturday, all four sides would have five points. And Kilkenny would snake through on scoring difference at the expense of…Galway. But however ‘funny’ etc…

Ulster football’s finalists will be Donegal and Cavan. Donegal and Tyrone have been Ulster’s ‘big two’ for years. And Saturday evening’s clash between them was widely-billed as the ‘real’ Ulster final, about which Cavan will have a view. Donegal won by only four points. But it was, as RTE pundit Colm O’Rourke noted, “an annihilation by four points, it could have been 14.”

Jamie Brennan scored an early goal for Donegal, who led by seven points at half-time, having played the sort of blanket defence-based, swift counter-attacking game which made them All-Ireland champions in 2012 but would have been rank-rotten viewing if it wasn’t played with the dynamism they showed on Saturday.

Helped by an early black card to Tyrone’s influential forward Peter Harte, they nullified Tyrone’s attacking strategy, itself lauded as great progress from their own blanket defending in recent years. And Tyrone had no plan B. As RTE controversialist Joe Brolly wrote in his Irish Independent column, Tyrone boss Micky Harte (Peter’s uncle) “looked on with the puzzled expression of a monkey doing a jigsaw.”

Tyrone did have three good early goal chances. But Donegal moved through the gears whenever required. And, despite defending in depth, their football was joyous at times. It was fun in RTE’s studio, too, with Brolly in his element talking down Harte (“not tactically astute”) and arguing with O’Rourke about Donegal captain Michael Murphy. “You have a bee in your bonnet about Murphy,” moaned a man with bonnets full of bees about all kinds of everything, employing an irony forceful enough for even Americans to understand. Great telly, though.

Cavan’s replay win over Armagh was a score-fest. Like Tyrone, Armagh missed early goal chances. And like Kilkenny, they were over-reliant on individual ability, Rian O’Neill and Jamie Clarke scoring 13 of their 17 points. Clarke is one of my favourite Gaelic footballers. Even when flitting in-and-out of games, whatever he does matters. Sadly, it mattered on Sunday that he badly missed one of Armagh’s goal chances. But otherwise, he was outstanding.

Cavan’s outstanding players generally were also outstanding on Sunday, from defender Colin Moynaugh to forward Dara McVeety. Drawn game supersub Cian Mackey didn’t need to be so super on Sunday. But his one super score put Cavan three-up at a vital stage and they eventually won by six, reaching their first Ulster final since 2001, a crazy wait for a county so steeped in football tradition.

The Cavan/Armagh ‘curtain-raiser’ (big GAA games are rarely single-billed) was a dismal reminder of the ‘old’ Ulster, Monaghan beating Fermanagh by four points in a niggly low-scoring encounter which Fermanagh finished with only 12 players behind the ball because they only had 12 players left.

This was in the first round of the ‘qualifiers,’ (aka the “back door”), where beaten provincial quarter-finalists meet each other in low-scoring and/or one-sided affairs and progress to meet the eight beaten provincial semi-finalists, in a competition which offers a “back door” into the All-Ireland championship “super eights,” while the losers’ season is over.

Monaghan were the only ‘big’ first round name (an Ulster team often is, because of the province’s open draw). While there were big wins for Derry and Westmeath. And Leitrim, the smallest of Ireland’s 32 counties by population, also won. London lost, alas. Of the bigger beaten provincial semi-finalists, Mayo visit Down, Tyrone visit Ireland’s second-smallest county by population, Longford and Armagh visit…Monaghan.

Leinster’s football semi-finals also happened last weekend. Dublin last lost in Leinster an hour after Frank Lampard scored that ‘goal’ against Germany (yes, THAT long ago). Meath scored more goals than Germany that day and are finalists again now, having beaten Laois by 11 points last Sunday. However, Laois hit the underside of the bar shortly after half-time, which would have left them a point behind. And Dublin marmalised Kildare in their semi-final, despite being ‘below-par’ before half-time. Meath are good and improving. But not by nearly enough to beat Dublin again

The first provincial honours will be doled out next weekend. And 200% will be there, as Roscommon visit Galway in the Connacht Football final, to try to pull off a second shock victory in Connacht this year. I might not be wholly responsible for my actions if they do.