The GAA Championship: Ulster & The New Munster?

The RTE website headline on Monday asked the question: “Is Ulster football the new Munster hurling?” To which the only sane answer is “don’t be ridiculous.”

Nonetheless, the headline writer could be excused. It is mind-altering to see this year’s Ulster Football Championship being more entertaining than Munster’s Hurling Championship. Especially so last weekend, when Cavan and Armagh thrillingly drew after extra-time in the Ulster semi-final and the Munster hurling wins for Limerick in Waterford and Tipperary in Clare were as one-sided as a rap battle between Jay-Z and Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Ulster’s thrill superiority has had people losing the run of themselves. ‘Sunday Game’ football pundit Pat Spillane drooled over Cavan/Armagh (“everything you demand of a Gaelic Football contest”) and declared the Ulster Championship “the best I’ve seen in ten or twelve years.” This was significant. Spillane was a major Ulster football critics in the noughties. As fellow pundit Ciaran Whelan reminded us on Sunday, Spillane coined the phrase “puke football” to describe Tyrone’s defensive ‘style,’ which helped them share domination of noughties Gaelic Football with Spillane’s native Kerry.

Spillane later semi-retracted that statement for not giving a great Tyrone side sufficient credit. But he told ‘Sunday Game Live’ in 2011 that “we’ve just watched sh’ite football,” as Donegal lead Dublin by four points to two at half-time in a real horror-show All-Ireland semi-final. He never retracted that (and having been at Donegal’s 2011 quarter-final, I don’t blame him). On Sunday, though, he was, as presenter Des Cahill noted, “raving.” About the match, that is.

Armagh, as against Down in the previous round, ‘won’ the game more than once. But this time, they didn’t actually win it. Full-forward Rian O’Neill kicked the turf in frustration at the end, and if he’d kicked his shots with equivalent ferocity, Armagh may have won. Cavan sub Cian Mackey kicked three wondrous long-range points which all served as equalisers, including the last points of normal and extra-time. But he sliced his, easier, fourth chance when a score would have won the game.

Armagh’s Jarlath Og Burns and Cavan’s Dara McVeety both starred, with Burns making up for spurning a great goal chance early in the first half with a great goal early in the second. And there was nothing between the sides until Burns’ goal. However, despite Armagh going four ahead and Cavan’s Ciaran Brady seeing a red mist and then a red card for connecting his swinging elbow into an Armagh nose with 12 minutes left, Cavan forced extra-time.

Extra-time’s first half was scoreless and horrible, a brief hark-back to Ulster championship ‘classic,’ as players wilted. Armagh’s Stefan Campbell had less-tired legs, as he was subbed during the game, and they carried him through Cavan’s defence early in extra-time’s second half. But Mackey levelled again from across the Irish border two minutes from time.

The replay is on Sunday and will resemble a thriller even if it isn’t, as it will follow Fermanagh’s latest ‘game.’ Because Fermanagh are a timely reminder that this year’s Ulster championship has been a mixed bag. Pundits appear to have forgotten in a week how boring Fermanagh were and Tyrone beating Antrim was as one-sided as a rap battle between Jay-Z and Jacob Rees-Mogg with laryngitis.

Spillane said “whisper it quietly” (not loudly?), “but the Gaelic football championship this year has probably given us better quality, more entertaining, more intense games than the hurling.” Mind you, Spillane “enjoyed” bits of the Fermanagh game. “Maybe I’m going soft in my old age,” he said, “but I enjoyed watching Donegal’s efforts to overcome the Fermanagh blanket.” He’s going soft in his old age. But while football is “coming out of recession” (Whelan), it’s not completely out.

Munster’s semi-finals were largely competitive non-events. Limerick shocked Tipperary in the quarters and had some confidence of a big result against a Cork side tumbling down football’s stairs. They got a big hiding, three early Cork goals ending the contest as a contest Meanwhile, Kerry were dusting Clare off their cuffs for most of their ‘contest’ until getting very sloppy indeed late on.

And in Leinster, Kildare/Longford microcosm-ed the football championship, a thrilling draw followed by a Kildare cakewalk in Sunday’s replay. The football championship has so far been a curate’s egg. Some great games, some looking as if a curate’s egg was the match ball. Ulster HAS been really good. But suggesting that it is a “new Munster” says more about the paucity of quality championship football in recent early summers than anything else.

Munster’s two hurling games were as one-sided as a rap battle between Jay-Z and Jacob Rees-Mogg with laryngitis and a concentration-destroying in-growing toe-nail. Tipperary booked their place in the Munster hurling final, with one match left, having won their first three comprehensively. Clare’s home ground, Cusack Park, is regarded, with some justification, as a bit of a fortress. So they were expected to be Tipp’s toughest challenge. And before half-time, they were, playing into the ‘six-point wind’ that blew paperwork all over RTE’s open-air studio, and reaching half-time only six points down.

But after half-time, they were almost literally blown away. Tipp won by 13 points, slowing up, mocking RTE pundit Jackie Tyrell’s pre-match prediction of a draw, which the first half allowed him to repeat at half time. But however good Tipp were, and at times throughout they were very good indeed, Clare fell apart alarmingly after Tipp got a lucky early second-half goal. “At sixes and sevens, totally out of their depth,” said Tyrell. “As bad as Waterford,” said fellow pundit, ex-Waterford star, Ken McGrath.

And, in the afternoon’s first game, Waterford were very bad indeed. They had also kept their half-time deficit to six points as a six-point wind blew across their Walsh Park home. But they’d played WITH that wind. And they, like Clare, (another wind pun coming up) blew up in the second half against All-Ireland champions Limerick.

Limerick were under pressure after their first-game loss to Cork. And, for ten minutes, that pressure told. Then Aaron Gillane found the net. And Waterford dissolved. By half-time, their ‘efforts’ had reduced McGrath to Theresa May-esque blubbing. And the second half was more of the same, except into the wind. Paudie Mahony saw red for a wild swing of his hurley (“born out of pure frustration, things have imploded so much” – McGrath) which he visibly regretted almost before it landed. And Limerick won by TWENTY points, slowing up.

At full-time, presenter Joanne Cantwell acknowledged that “for Waterford people and for an awful lot of hurling people, that was tough to watch,” after match commentator Marty Morrissey marvelled aloud how Waterford were All-Ireland finalists in 2017 and League finalists “just nine weeks ago.” And McGrath lamented “one of the longest halves I’ve ever had to watch in hurling. .

“What can you say after that?,” he asked, his tone sorrowful rather than angry, as most pundits may have been about their own sides, especially a player as aggressive as McGrath. “ There was so many things wrong. It was embarrassing. We were an absolute shambles.” “And at times,” he semi-sobbed again, “we were like lads who’d never even played the game.” As tough to watch as the match, that.

“Walsh Park is always a tough place to come,” said man-of-the-match Gearoid Hegarty at his award presentation interview. Ooops. Then Cantwell introduced Clare/Tipp by suggesting that “it seems unlikely that the crowd are going to be watching a big drubbing in this one.” Ooops again.

Six Munster round-robin games have now produced an astonishing five away wins. But their competitiveness has been less than astonishing. Cork host a disillusioned Waterford this Saturday evening. And Limerick host a disillusioned Clare on Sunday afternoon. Ken McGrath may well be in tears again.

Meanwhile, Dublin’s Leinster hurling win over Carlow was also one-sided. But we needn’t involve Jay-Z here.

The coming weekend is the busiest of the championship. There’s a full programme of Munster and Leinster hurling (mis?)matches. This week’s ‘New Munster’ (Ulster) football semi-final involves Ulster’s ‘big two,’ Donegal and Tyrone, the dictionary definition between them of ‘no love lost.’ Cavan and Armagh re-play, of course.

And the All-Ireland football ‘qualifiers’ begin. This is the second road to All-Ireland glory for the 16 fallen teams at their first provincial championship hurdles, with every team beaten at provincial level, up to and including the losing finalists, joining a rolling competition to produce four teams to accompany the provincial champions in the “super eights” competition in xx weeks.

This road has been travelled its length before. Last year’s beaten finalists, Tyrone, played right through the qualifiers. In 2001, Galway became All-Ireland champions after playing in all four qualifying rounds (better than Ajax in the just-finished Champions League, that). And Mayo have almost made the trek a tradition, beaten finalists in 2016 and 2017, after early provincial defeat.

Thus, with so many championship fixtures to hand, Sunday night’s ‘Sunday Game’ highlights show could well end early on Monday. Especially if Joe Brolly’s on…