The GAA Championship, Week 6: Tipp Toppled

by | Jun 13, 2018

The Championship field is contracting. Eight counties’ football championship finished after defeats last weekend. But the big departure of the weekend was in hurling. Tipperary.

Convincing All-Ireland champions 21 months ago, seemingly developing a dynasty. Southampton striker Shane Long once played for their minors (under-18s). But out…out…OUT after home defeat to Clare on Sunday, as the Munster Hurling Championship continues to pile sensation-upon-sensation.

Clare hadn’t beaten Tipp at Tipp’s Semple Stadium for NINETY years…and hadn’t beaten Tipp at all in Championship since 2003. And, for a second-and-a-bit, as Tipp substitute Jake Morris’s rasping shot on 64 minutes 13 seconds arrowed towards goal, 90 was becoming 91. A goal would have put Tipp seven points up with five-and-a-bit minutes left. But on 64 minutes 14 seconds, with Clare keeper Donal Tuohy an on-looker, it hit the post. Seventeen seconds later (one for ‘The Cure’ fans), Clare sub Ian Galvin goaled, and Clare were suddenly only a point behind.

It was end-to-end now. And, having been behind since minute six, Clare levelled, after two minutes’ stoppage-time. Tipp led again, another 17 seconds later. Clare levelled again, 78 seconds later, led 26 seconds later, led by two 36 seconds later, John Conlon scoring from an angle which will require Geometry textbook re-writes. And one puck-out later, Clare had won. Ninety years of hurt. Gone in (one hundred and) sixty seconds.

The first half had been intriguing (genuinely, not euphemistically) but with countless tension-induced errors, Clare’s handling and shooting especially. Yet Clare hung in there, despite being out-hurled for large swathes of the match by a Tipp team who had their first decent Championship first half and occasionally resembled the Tipp of (recent) yore.

Then the tension suddenly produced genuine excitement and quality. And if you can watch the last three minutes without goosebumping, consult your doctor. As RTE commentator Marty Morrissey noted, it “turned out to be a pulsating encounter.” A classic, in a normal year. But this year, you’ll have spotted, is not normal.

Certainly not for Limerick, whose first-half evisceration of Waterford set up a decisive clash in Clare next week. Limerick have been thereabouts, but rarely there, since their 1930s glory days. Much was made of the 33-year gap between their 1940 and 1973 All-Ireland titles. But they haven’t won another since. And their final defeats in 1994 and 1996 were snatched from the proverbial jaws of victory (in 1994, arguably even deeper into the proverbial digestive system, thanks to Offaly’s late scoring blitz).

This year, though, they have been outstanding, even in an outstanding Championship, with many of their 2015 and 2017 All-Ireland under-21 title-winners looking All-Ireland senior potential. In a summer of close finishes, Limerick had Waterford beaten out the gate by half-time. And while  terrifying injury woes have destroyed Waterford, Limerick’s first-half on Sunday was special.

It could all unravel next week, however. There hasn’t been an away win in the Munster round-robin. Even Waterford drew their only ‘home’ game thus far. And Limerick travel to newly-resurgent Clear’s tight 14,684-capacity Cusack Park for an effective Munster semi-final. This assumes that Cork don’t lose to Waterford. Which even in THIS year’s championship, is safe to assume. Isn’t it?

It’s a Galway/Kilkenny Leinster Final on 1st July, after a Leinster round-robin which had its moments but was dwarfed by Munster’s magic. Galway rested key players and still beat Dublin at home, albeit by only a point. But Kilkenny against Wexford at Kilkenny city’s Nowlan Park was truly dramatic. Kilkenny’s rivalry with Tipp comes from them being hurling’s top two AND sharing a border. But Kilkenny/Wexford is THE Leinster rivalry, with occasional interlopers Offaly now out of the Leinster Championship altogether. It was a big game worthy of a national audience. It didn’t get one.

Indeed, the first 22 minutes wasn’t shown at all. SKY, in their very finite wisdom, couldn’t simultaneously show the hurling and the lengthy extra-time in their live football encounter, despite dedicating two channels to GAA coverage. And SKY proactively decided NOT to re-run the hurling in the UK, as advertised (I have a snotty letter of complaint in the electronic post, awaiting an explanation and will, be warned, report back).

When Sky eventually reached Nowlan Park, Kilkenny were four points back, having led early on. And Wexford dominated until half-time. Nine points is, as Tipperary twice demonstrated this summer, nothing in hurling. But it looked plenty when Wexford opened up that gap on 37 minutes. But Kilkenny boss Brian Cody, remember, is a hurling genius. Kilkenny were backed by a helpful second-half breeze. But it wasn’t nine points in 33 minutes helpful. Instead, Kilkenny dug into the depths of their character and, legal, physicality to turn things around when hope looked lost.

This deep-digging was a trait of Cody’s greatest teams. And Cody got it from an, as yet, far less naturally talented panel. He substituted Richie Hogan and Colm Fennelly, stars of Cody’s last great side (so far). And the newbies, helped by current star TJ Reid, were level with 12 minutes left and soon led by two. And though Wexford kept pegging the deficit back to a point, Kilkenny determinedly won out.

Cody’s men will, probably, lose the Leinster Final. Except, y’know…Cody. But, if so, Wexford will be as much in the All-Ireland hunt as Kilkenny if they beat second-tier Joe McDonagh Cup runners-up, Carlow or Westmeath, in a ‘preliminary’ quarter-final. Especially as their late fatigue at Nowlan Park was attributed to playing on four consecutive weekends, where Kilkenny had a week off, halfway through. And they now have a month off. Just don’t rely on seeing them ‘live’ (or re-run) ‘on SKY.’

The football behind the SKY shenanigans was, in fairness, worth staying on for. It nearly produced a Tipperary-style shock exit, with genuine All-Ireland semi-final contenders Tyrone put to the pin of their collar by unfancied Meath, before prevailing by one point after extra-time. The drama was better than  the football. But referee Paddy Neilan was worse.

The game over-ran due to Neilan’s faffing about between full-time and extra-time as well as extra-time itself. And he similarly faffed about inside his head when decisions needed making. Neilan has often seemed reluctant to apply Gaelic Games’ recently introduced (most would say improved) advantage rule, especially where players can shoot after being fouled and get the free should they miss. He was again on Saturday. And Tyrone suffered plentifully.

Even RTE pundit and ex-Meath All-Ireland winner Colm O’Rourke admitted that “probably they were the better team,” despite needing a point five-and-a-half minutes into five minutes’ stoppage-time to reach extra-time. But Neilan got THE decision wrong. Meath reduced a four-point deficit to one, with seconds remaining, a huge, cramp-inducing effort, when Meath’s James McEntee fell over as he moved into scoring range. Yet Neilan gave nothing.

He probably wished that SKY had gone to the hurling, as TV replays showed McEntee being shoved over by Tyrone’s Kieran McGeary. Meath boss Andy McEntee knew it and had to be restrained by players and Meath officials as he angrily approached a barely-gardai (police)-protected Neilan. Not his finest hour. But O’Rourke Freudian slipped furiously, demanding “a certain respect towards a referee, whether he does a poor or bad j…er…or a good job.” Right first time, Colm.

The other qualifiers were form-book affairs, bar Waterford beating Wexford, thus lasting longer in the Championships than their hurlers for once. Kildare beat Derry, their first win since forever. Mayo, Cavan and Armagh won heavily in Limerick, Wicklow and Westmeath respectively. Offaly beat Antrim and London lost by ten points again, this time to Louth in a ludicrously high-scoring affair.

The provincial final line-ups were completed on Sunday. Dublin, predictably, dismantled Longford, although Longford played some good football, emerged from the game psychologically unscathed (a ‘result’ when most teams play Dublin) and may fancy their chances at home to Kildare in the qualifiers.

However, Dublin goalkeeper Steven Cluxton was very scathed when Longford’s James McGivney shoulder-charged his rib-cage while he was mid-air after clearing a high-ball. Cluxton has been Dublin’s and football’s best goalkeeper for years and would be a big miss in big games. But there won’t be any of them for Dublin for a bit.

They face Laois in the Leinster Final, who overcame Carlow in their semi-final; a ‘curtain-raiser’ for the Dublin game which many would have drawn the curtains on. Carlow have garnered considerable neutral support as underdogs. But they are wretchedly defensive, even among a whole linen department’s worth of inter-county ‘blanket defences.’ RTE controversialist Joe Brolly has an unsurprisingly dim view of Carlow. And while he wasn’t a pundit last Sunday, O’Rourke’s take on Carlow’s display was trademark Brolly: “pure drivel altogether.”

RTE colleague Sean Cavanagh recently pilloried long-time Tyrone boss Mickey Harte (despite winning THREE All-Irelands under him), claiming that talented forwards “suffered” under the “autocratic at times” Harte’s defensive style. Tyrone visit…Carlow in the qualifiers. Oh joy, oh rapture.

The blanket defence emerged from Donegal, when they were managed by ex-player Jim McGuinness, Under McGuinness, a county that had only reached one All-Ireland final (winning in 1992 with McGuinness an unused sub), won 2012’s All-Ireland, were a goalkeeping blooper from winning 2014’s, developed a counter-attacking style which produced some exhilarating games and were the last team to beat Dublin in the Championship, in 2014’s semi-final.

McGuinness’s successor, Rory Gallagher, kept their defensive ethos but they lost their attacking verve and were humbled by Galway in last year’s qualifiers. This year, under 1992 All-Ireland winner Declan Bonner, Donegal have rediscovered their attacking mojo and have steamrollered through Ulster, with Sunday’s semi-final shellacking of Down particularly impressive.

Donegal were four points ahead when experienced defender Neil McGee saw red for a second booking, a series of meant-to-be-covert knees into the back of prone Down full-forward Connaire Harrison which the linesman stood five yards away couldn’t but see. This ended what had already seemed like a long-running feud, after…ELEVEN minutes.

However, 14-man Donegal didn’t even blink, nearly trebling their lead before Down scored and ‘only’ winning by 13 points because they eased up and because Down goaled with the game’s last kick. Star men Michael Murphy and Paddy McBrearty are on peak form, which Murphy rarely was under Gallagher. And there are emergent stars in all sectors. It remains unclear how far this resurgence will take Donegal. But an acid test awaits in their provincial final against ultra-defensive Fermanagh, managed by…Rory Gallagher.

Next Sunday, after the Munster hurling finally finishes, Roscommon defend their Connacht title at home to Galway. Both sides have improved since Roscommon’s surprise 2017 win IN Galway. But Galway have improved more and shouldn’t be caught as cold and complacent as they were then. But we have a chance. And I have a ticket. Find out next week if I’m glad I have.