The GAA Championship: Week 4 – The Sunday Game… Just.

by | May 30, 2018

‘Championship’ always had busy weekends during provincial competitions’ early rounds. But these have got busier with this year’s new formats. As has ‘The Sunday Game,’ RTE’s ‘Match of the Day’ equivalent.

Sunday’s highlights show started at 9.30pm, as per, but finished at midnight, with football pundit Sean Cavanagh delivering his insights so carefully, it was nearly ‘The Sunday/Monday Game’ (had Joe Brolly been on, we’d be there yet). Imagine 150 minutes, minus adverts, of Robbie Savage and Martin Keow…actually, no, best not.

There were plentiful highlights, though. After Cork’s surprisingly easy dispatch of Tipperary from Munster’s football championship, the counties’ hurling encounter was a sensation. Cork were as confident as Tipp were insecure after their contrasting first-week fortunes. And the first half reflected this. Cork ran almost literal rings around their arthritic-looking opponents. And their nine-point half-time lead should have been at least eleven.

Tipp were prolific for six minutes midway through the half, including a fabulous goal by full-forward Jason Forde. But…er…that was it. And studio pundit Ger Loughnane declared at half-time that “it isn’t game-over completely,” but Tipp had, “unfortunately come to the end of the line.” There was, he proclaimed, “no way back for this Tipperary team, either today or in the Championship.”

“Strong words,” presenter Michael Lyster noted, sensing they could be (in)famous words. They were stupid words too…I told my PC (with added four-letter emphatic pronouns). A nine-point deficit is often the cliched ‘nothing in hurling.’ And Tipp had an influential breeze behind them in the second half. Yet, you sort-of-knew what Loughnane meant. And although he acknowledged that Tipp didn’t “lack character,” they looked beaten.

It wouldn’t have been sensational if they were, of course. And they started after half-time like they’d heard Loughnane’s every word. Helped further by a string of unforced Cork errors, Tipp drew level with 11 minutes left. And when Cork went three-up again, Tipp were denied by a save from Cork goalkeeper Anthony Nash every bit as fabulous as Forde’s goal. “Just give him the All-Star now,” an increasingly-hoarse commentator Darragh Maloney ordered (‘All-Stars’ are the annual awards for the best footballer and hurler in each (nominal) position on the field).

Tipp’s eventually levelled again, 75 seconds into two minutes’ stoppage-time, after another unforced error. And although substitute Jake Morris’s shot was referred to the ‘Hawk-Eye’ video technology, it was well inside the post, suggesting that the umpire’s sense of drama had annexed his decision-making faculties.

“Sack the pundit,” cried a suitably contrite Loughnane. “Death concentrates the mind,” was his explanation for Tipp’s resurrection. But however often the ex-school headmaster quotes Samuel Johnson, his half-time words will be the ones we remember.

Loughnane’s county, Clare, predictably brought home advantage to bear against a Waterford side whose injury luck defied analysis. Waterford were down two players pre-match, including talismanic everywhere-man Austin Gleeson. Between minutes 14 and 38, they lost three defenders, including talismanic ‘sweeper’ Tadhg de Burca. And on 48 minutes, Kevin Moran hurtled across the pitch to shoulder-charge Tony Kelly’s face, for reasons Waterford’s, ulp, captain should probably keep to himself.

That Waterford lost by only nine points (‘nothing in hurling,’ remember) might have inspired some ‘take-the-positives’ clichés. But, injury-ravaged and without home advantage, Waterford face Tipp next Sunday and already look out of an otherwise up-for-grabs Munster Championship. They’ll hope Ger Loughnane thinks so, anyway

Galway/Kilkenny was the stand-out Leinster Hurling Championship fixture at first sight. Galway have been out on a limb for almost their entire hurling history, as the only non-Leinster/Munster challenge to Leinster and Munster counties. This, for years, meant straightforward routes into All-Ireland semi-finals, but no competitive matches until the semis and no ‘big’ home games, as semi-finals were/are played at Croke Park.

Hence Galway’s rare final appearances, and Sunday’s encounter being the biggest hurling match ever staged at Pearse Stadium, Salthill, the Atlantic-coastal Galway city suburb. Especially big after the counties reversed ‘traditional’ roles in 2017; Galway the All-Ireland champions, Kilkenny struggling to be contenders. And for an hour, Galway were the better side by more than the scoreboard suggested, with Kilkenny entirely reliant on TJ Reid’s free and penalty-taking ability and occasional bursts from gargantuan alliteration Walter Walsh and Martin Keown-soundalike Martin Keoghan.

Kilkenny only scored three times from open play, with nothing from play after half-time, when they played with what I know from bitter personal experience is ALWAYS a strong wind, until Walsh’s stoppage-time barely-consolation goal. This scoring rate would concern Kilkenny’s football team…and Kilkenny barely HAVE a football team.

This inability to make superiority count was attributed to a fear of Kilkenny’s past ability to overcome poor starts against Galway, a fear which gripped the crowd when Walsh netted on 63 minutes to leave Galway just three points ahead.

However, the goal was, rightly, disallowed, after the Galway team shouted “he dropped the hurl” in such pitch-perfect unison that the TV microphones picked it up over the crowd’s noisy anxiety. This persuaded the referee to consult his umpires and eventually agree that “he” (Bill Sheehan) did indeed drop the “hurl,” (the hurley, or ‘stick’ for the uninitiated) which players cannot do deliberately. Democracy in action, in a manner which should encourage organised on-field dissent but somehow doesn’t.

And thus reprieved by referendum (topical in Ireland last weekend), Galway realised their fears were phobias and sprinted 11 points clear before Walsh’s legitimate goal. They visit Wexford next Saturday, which promises to be a better game than SKY deserve for their 2018 live Championship coverage opener, and will likely be a Leinster Final rehearsal, given Kilkenny’s struggles.

On Saturday, Wexford overwhelmed Offaly, who finished three men and 24 points down and are warm second-favourites in their relegation clash with Dublin. Wexford visit Kilkenny on the final weekend, a match which will have SOMEthing riding on it, especially if Galway beat them.

In Leinster’s Football Championship. All-Ireland champions Dublin not only ‘beat’ bottom-of-division-four Wicklow ‘out the gate,’ as the Irish call a heavy defeat, but down the road, under the bridge and left at the lights. However, cats were among pigeons elsewhere in Leinster.

Longford’s ‘giant-killing’ of Meath has since been played down by pundits, some of whom ‘knew’ Longford would win but didn’t tell anyone. Meath have ‘traditionally’ been better than Longford. And they hammered five goals past Dublin in 2010’s Leinster Final, matching Germany goal-for-goal at one stage, as Germany simultaneously knocked England out of the World Cup. It was Dublin last Leinster loss. But Meath lost their All-Ireland quarter-final to Kildare. And it has been gradually downhill for them ever since.

By comparison, Kildare’s loss to Carlow was a downhill slide on their arse. Forty minutes into last year’s Leinster final, Kildare squandered a good goal chance which would have given them a sniff of victory over Dublin. They simply stank on Sunday. Their two midfielders collided as they went for the first aerial challenge. And the rest of the match was one long collision.

Carlow caused a stir last year by not losing heavily to Dublin and leading super-eight contenders Monaghan two-parts of the way through their last outing. But in-between, they only scraped past London and were heavily criticised for their ultra-defensiveness They were more expansive on Sunday, though, inspired by Paul Broderick (who nearly outscored Kildare on his own) and a healthy number of Murphys. And they entirely deserved their seven-point win.

Carlow face Laois (pronounced ‘leash,’ give-or-take) in the provincial semi-final in Croke Park, a re-run of the Division Four final at the same venue which Laois won by five points. And Carlow/Dublin will likely be the neutral’s Leinster final choice, even if it will be a Dublin procession in Croke Park’s wide-open spaces.

Few expected Kildare to play like…that, although it was their 12th straight defeat in 12 months. “Catastrophic, humiliating,” said manager Cian O’Neill, correctly, as with three recent Aussie Rules football professionals on their panel, they should be better than…that. Meanwhile, ‘#CarlowRising’ is ‘trending.’ Which is good. Apparently.

One disbelieving match-report headline suggested that “Carlow really are bloody rising.” And local radio’s Brendan Hennessy admonished himself for calling Carlow’s second goalscorer “Horse” Lawlor, while calling the goal (“I’m not supposed to use nicknames on the radio”), as colleague Willie Quinlan screamed uncontrollably in the ‘background.’ It was a surprise NOT to hear that Kildare’s “boys took a hell of a beating.”

In Ulster, Donegal strolled into and kept a six-point lead over Derry, who exceeded expectations by being not rubbish. While Down beat Antrim in a match so low-key it almost disappeared. The crowd was 5,589. And debate lingered (‘raged’ would imply a non-existent passion) as to what caused this at a match played alongside a Champions League final, with tickets 20% dearer than last year, all points made (with a sense of irony matching the occasion) into BBC microphones.

In Connacht, Roscommon ran lanes through Leitrim. And even “the great Willie Hegarty,” as Shannonside FM radio introduced him, couldn’t dramatise proceedings. He tried, though, because of course he did. “They haven’t thrown the towel” he exclaimed delightedly, every two minutes, as his Leitrim co-commentator sobbed inwardly at Roscommon’s ever-expanding lead.

There was more interest in Roscommon manager Kevin McStay’s post-match comments. If, as expected, Galway beat Sligo, the Connacht Final should be in Roscommon’s Dr Hyde Park. A Roscommon/Galway pairing had been forseeable for months. Yet Connacht’s Council only recently publicly doubted the 18,000-capacity Hyde’s ability to stage the game. McStay had “no doubt,” airily insisting: “We’ll certainly be turning up in the Hyde, I hope someone else is there to meet us.”

This airily dismissed Sligo’s chances of beating Galway, which would mean the final being in Castlebar, County Mayo’s 38,000-capacity McHale Park, their ‘designated’ provincial final home venue, rather than the 18,500-capacity Markievicz Park IN Sligo. No…me neither. Still, this amateur-hour indecision won’t make it more fraught and expensive for overseas Roscommon fans to arrange flights, trains, hotels, match tickets etc. Oh…wait.

Busier weekends await. The first-round football qualifiers are on 9th/10th June. And the entire draw process fitted snugly into an eight-and-a-half-minute facebook video of RTE’s ‘Morning Ireland’ show (Fifa/Uefa, take note). The only glitch was the lack of cameras showing ex-Kerry star Colm ‘Gooch’ Cooper drawing the balls out. But Mayo/Tyrone was the only fixture worth fixing. And Cooper paired Tyrone with Meath. “Tyrone. Thanks, Colm. Really appreciate it,” noted Meath-born Morning Ireland presenter Gavin Jennings, wearing his sarky boots.

And London host Louth, who couldn’t beat a carpet, drum or egg in the league, and were in disarray after their Championship loss to Carlow. So, London have a chance, despite that Carlow result ageing well. Sunday June 10th, 2pm, McGovern Park, Ruislip, by the A40 ‘Polish War Memorial’ turn-off. You KNOW you want to.

It’s a mere two-hour ‘Sunday Game’ this Sunday. But peak Championship continues.