GAA Championship Week 1: Limerick’s Easter Uprising

by | Apr 22, 2022

So, rumours of All-Ireland hurling champions Limerick’s demise were greatly exaggerated. And rumours of Waterford’s emergence as All-Ireland championship favourites were less exaggerated. However, rumours that Munster provincial hurling is still superior to Leinster were not exaggerated at all.

Meanwhile, Ulster and All-Ireland football champions Tyrone began in unexpectedly incident-filled but ultimately comfortable fashion. While London and New York footballers nearly provided the stories of the championship’s lively opening weekend. Yes. London. Yes, New York. But, yes, nearly.

Limerick had an atrocious National Hurling League. And 16 seconds into their championship opener at league finalists Cork, atrocious was still the word. Straight from the throw-in, Cork knife-through-buttered a Limerick defence consisting mostly of Barry Nash, whose body language screamed “er…lads?” The ball found its way to Shane Kingston and, because Kingston is in the team for more than being the Cork manager’s son, it quickly found the net.

Yet, on 16 MINUTES, Limerick led, as Kyle Hayes turned two Cork defenders near the touchline and found, to the horror of RTE co-commentator Brendan Cummins, “that the next person he was going to meet was Cork keeper Patrick Collins.” Hayes netted what RTE commentator, the ever-wowed Marty Morrissey, called a goal of “pure magic.” Cummins, though, bemoaned how easy it was for Hayes “to walk in, right beside the goalkeeper, and tap it past him.” And ex-Tipperary keeper Cummins was nearer the truth.

Limerick were four-up at half-time when Hayes intercepted a pass and set up a hideously unmarked Aaron Gillane to find the net. This, after considerable faffing around by Cork’s half-backs, who wanted to play the ball to their forwards but found, to Cummins’ horror again, that there was “nobody inside.” In first-half stoppage time, Cork were denied a second goal by…well, it was too much of a blur to be certain. But, in another blur, they rattled over four points to draw level, 160 seconds after half-time.

Yet that was that as a contest. Limerick half-back Diarmaid Byrnes displayed both the wonder of and the problem with modern hurling by landing two points from what used to be known colloquially as ‘another parish.’ Spectacular, yes. But no wonder some games are semi-reduced to free-taking contests when each team’s scoring zones overlap so much. Still, after those 90-100-yard scores, the Limerick of 2020 and 2021 at last emerged from hibernation, the best of their subsequent scores being 2021 hurler-of-the-year Cian Lynch’s point while ‘taking the knee.’ “Now that’s a wow, no matter what game in the world you’re watching,” Morrissey gushed, correctly.

Cork had moments. Limerick keeper Nicky Quaid made what looked for all money like a sensational early second-half save from Shane Barrett, although RTE studio pundit and ex-Cork keeper Donal Og Cusack suggested Barrett’s shot was “hit at a perfect height” for Quaid. Begrudging, these former keepers. But they were only moments. Insufficient in and of themselves to avoid an 11-point semi-humiliation. Even last year’s Limerick only beat Cork by eight points in their Munster match. And Cork’s February hammering of Limerick, IN Limerick, in the league? Like it never happened.

Limerick and Waterford were hurling’s big two across the two “Covid championships.” And they look that way already this year, as Waterford followed up their just-won league title with Sunday’s four-point home win over a Tipperary side ‘in transition’ but still in possession of an amount of talent.

Waterford had those vital four points scored without reply. But Mark Kehoe’s goal for Tipp, semi-direct from a rare howler by Waterford captain Conor Prunty, knocked them so far off their game that they were six points down approaching half-time. It could have been more but for Waterford keeper Sean O’Brien’s wonder save after Jason Forde looked set to convert the move of the half. And there was a sense that they’d escaped with a four-point half-time deficit, as their stars were playing badly, or not (yet) playing at all.

Waterford manager Liam Cahill changed that at half-time, subbing on talismen Austin Gleeson and Jamie Barron. They, and consequentially stirred star forward Dessie Hutchinson, grabbed the game’s neck scruff. And, nine minutes after the restart, Waterford had the momentum…and a five-point lead. But the pressures of favouritism intervened. They missed a series of ill-advised long-range efforts. On 59 minutes, Kehoe scored his second goal for Tipp, who cut the gap to one, before Waterford landed the final three points…and two championship points of significant and symbolic value.

Tipperary-born Cahill has long been considered a near-future Tipperary manager, with that move considered a promotion only by hurling traditionalists and those not looking properly at how good Waterford have been in recent years, and how much better Cahill has made them. Cahill turned the job down last August. And nothing since suggests he was wrong.

Leinster hurling’s opening weekend was more intriguing than exciting, although there was late drama in the competition’s headline event.

RTE pundits seemed assured of Laois and Westmeath’s place. Star studio man, ex-Clare captain and Dublin boss Anthony Daly, used a Leinster team getting five points but not qualifying for the All-Ireland series as his weekend’s mantra. And he noted the potential damage of Dublin “not putting enough on Laois,” after they won by ‘only’ two points. Presenter Joanne Cantwell then framed Kilkenny’s 16-point win in Westmeath in the context of Galway ‘only’ beating Carlow by six points in 2019, and exiting the championship on scoring difference. “Sure, that’s the reality of it,” claimed pundit Shane Dowling, to snorts of derision across…well…Laois and Westmeath for starters.

“Westmeath started really, really well to hold Kilkenny “for a bit,” Cantwell patronised, a harsh review of being only three points behind the winners of the last two Leinster titles, two-thirds of the way through the game. Kilkenny’s big guns started firing thereafter, including the talismanic TJ Reid, a half-time sub who missed the entirety of their run to the league semi-final), as they thumped in four more goals to lead by 19. But they might yet rue conceding a late goal if scoring difference come into pla…f**k…they’ve got me at it.

Leinster’s secondary status was visibly manifest in the largely empty Wexford Park terracing at Wexford/Galway. And Sky Sports’ live coverage could hardly be blamed, as its ratings have hardly improved SO much from 2015, when ex-RTE pundit Joe Brolly joked that ”more people went to mass in Donnybrook that Sunday” (the Dublin suburb where RTE is based) than watched their All-Ireland football final coverage. Nonetheless, Wexford’s late salvation of a draw was attributed to the “home town” pressure put on Waterford referee Thomas Walsh.

Five minutes into seven minutes’ stoppage-time, on-form free-taker Conor Cooney had a placed-ball opportunity to put Galway three-up. And he naturally took his time over such an important shot. The home crowd gave him the hurry-up. And, in unexpected response, Walsh accused a visibly perplexed Cooney of time-wasting and rescinded the free. Then Lee Chin equalised from the game’s last puck, a free over which he took far longer than Cooney was allowed.

Galway should have won anyway, mind. They had led since Brian Concannon’s fifth-minute goal. And while Wexford keeper Mark Fanning only pointed a first-half penalty, the hosts were otherwise chasing scoreboard shadows until Conor McDonald’s 63rd-minute semi-comical, semi-genius goal; his effort at kicking the ball in showing Wexford football’s bottom division form, his shot to the net from the tightest conceivable angle a work of art. And, alongside Walsh’s selective impatience, it saved Wexford.

Leitrim and Sligo had narrow Connacht football championship squeaks…on foreign soil. London’s league form was the competition’s story when they won their first three games, including a two-point win IN Leitrim. Results collapsed. But performances didn’t. And it was no surprise that they ran Leitrim close on Sunday. Leitrim’s four-point win was three-quarters due to Ryan O’Rourke’s last-kick goal, after London had chances to force extra-time.

New York’s four-point loos to Sligo, also three-quarters due to late scores, WAS a surprise. New York as a team have had virtually no competitive action since 2019. Their annual hosting of each Connacht county in turn has long been their only competitive action, as they have yet to win one of these games. But they have come close in recent years. And they came mighty close on Sunday. It was a fine match on an artificial, fast-paced pitch, from the 20th second, when New York’s Daniel O’Sullivan fired over the opening point. And New York would probably be Connacht crossbar challenge champions, so often did they strike the frame of Sligo’s goal, in search of a shock.

But maybe the most pleasing aspect of the occasion was New York captain Jamie Boyle’s post-match interview, and the local accent in which he conducted it. Past New York teams have predominantly been ex-pats, including some familiar inter-county players. Sunday’s team had half-a-dozen players in the ‘must-be-good-because-I’ve-heard-of-them’ column. But four were US-born. And the Tailteann Cup could bring New York on exponentially, as they never played in the former qualifying competition for defeated provincial championship teams.

Tyrone didn’t have quite as bad a league as Limerick. But their first half of 2022 Ulster championship football, against lowly neighbours Fermanagh, failed to encourage or inspire. The sides were level shortly after half-time. But the ‘real’ Tyrone then appeared, scoring an unanswered goal and eight points to end the contest. Not the drama, though. Fermanagh eventually got the goal, which their display merited…and soon got a second goal, which it didn’t, to formally enter the ‘plucky territory’ of a seven-point defeat.

Then players from both sides formed an Atletico Madrid tribute act after a dispute over possession. This melee mostly involved Fermanagh players. But Conor McKenna, who’d been semi-disrobed in the fracas, was the only man sent-off. For indecent exposure, perhaps? TV pics offered no more logical explanation for him getting a red card at all, let alone being the only recipient of one. One for a video assistant referee, perhaps?

This weekend’s televised fare begins with BBC Northern Ireland’s coverage of the Antrim/Cavan Ulster championship match, at 2pm on Saturday. Sky Sports Arena’s hurling double-bill hits the screens at 4.30pm. Dublin’s Leinster championship visit to Wexford starts at 5pm, with Limerick’s Munster championship hosting of Waterford two hours later.

On Sunday, the Beeb will be at Armagh’s clash in Donegal, ‘clash’ being the operative word after their April 3rd league meeting ended in an umpteen-man brawl. Four Armagh and two Donegal players were initially suspended for Sunday. Armagh appealed…and their players got off. Donegal…didn’t appeal. Dozy gits. The first bell throw-in is 2pm, when RTE’s coverage of Tipp’s Munster hurling hosting of Clare begins. Mayo’s home Connacht football quarter-final against Galway follows on RTE at 4pm.

And the BBC and RTE games are available on the dirt-cheaper-than-Sky GAA GO streaming service. Subscribe, people. Subscribe.