The GAA Championship, Week 7: A Calm Before The Storm

by | Jun 21, 2018

Fifteen games last week, eleven next week. And only three on Sunday. But it was an intensity blip with a logic to it (see below). And the games were big ones.

The Munster Hurling Final pairing was decided by trademark late drama, even if the “big” game in the province was a dud. And, as you may have gathered by the fact that I haven’t typed “yayyyyyyyyyyyy!!” by now, things in the Connacht provincial football final developed not necessarily to Roscommon’s advantage.

The Connacht Final, eventually, became a form-book affair. Galway were such warm favourites that even the local Roscommon Herald newspaper’s headline was “Roscommon to perform, Galway to win.” And the Herald has plucked Roscommon victory-predictions from thin air for years. In 1969, they declared, via headline, that “Roscommon should end losing streak” against Galway. They scored one point in the entire game, which is as bad as it sounds.

On Sunday, Roscommon failed to score from open play in the entire second half, despite being backed by the elements…also as bad as it sounds. And bitter disappointment heralded Galway’s four-point win (even the ‘great Willie Heggarty’ cut a subdued figure outside the ground afterwards). Yet it was far from the whole story, as even RTE controversialist Joe Brolly said some nice, genuinely unpatronising things about Roscommon. And if you follow one of Gaelic Football’s ‘lesser’ counties, you treasure those moments.

But Brolly was especially happy because the game proved the barrister-by-trade’s theory that ‘blanket’ defensive football is ineffective “muck” (which has “spread like knotweed” through the club game in his native Derry). In recent years, on the big stage, Galway have been as easy to beat as to watch. Their 2016 and 2017 All-Ireland quarter-finals respectively were cases in point, unfancied Tipperary running lanes through them and Kerry simply fielding “a big lad up-front” to seal a comfortable win.

This year, they reached the league final through predominantly defensive means, but lost to Dublin despite being a point and a man up in the second half, backed by a helpful breeze. At half-time on Sunday, backed by a helpful near-gale, they were three points back, with Roscommon patiently piercing holes in the ‘blanket’ and leading thanks to Ciaran Murtagh’s excellent goal. As Brolly noted, Galway’s massed defenders were doing more “pointing” than defending.

Thus Roscommon fans around me (and me, I must add) forgot that if Galway threw off their shackles, they would probably still win. They did. But partly because Roscommon’s greatest strength, kicking long-range points, deserted them at key moments, wasting numerous scorable, and three ‘score-in-their-sleep’ opportunities.

We (and I’ve paid enough supporters’ club subs to say “we”) also lost a key player, midfielder Cathal Compton, through a late first-half injury. And despite much of his excellent first-half work being greeted by “well played, Lurch” from more than one nearby fan, the consensus echoed around me that ‘Lurch’ was “a big loss.” However, it wasn’t only, or even mostly, Roscommon “kicking this away,” as we despaired publicly when star forward Diarmuid Murtagh (Ciaran’s brother) pinged one wide midway through the second half.

Murtagh is class. “Unmarkable in the first half,” noted RTE pundit Tomas O Se, correctly, calling him as one of three RTE ‘man-of-the-match’ nominations. But those three should have been Galway’s Shane Walsh and…Walsh again. Twice. One booming first-half point had me clapping wildly, despite myself. And he surged Galway to the title, where predicted dangerman Damien Comer was superbly-marshalled by Roscommon corner-back Niall McInerney.

Yet Roscommon still led with seven minutes left. Galway had turned their half-time deficit into a two-point lead when a goalbound Murtagh was dragged to the ground and Roscommon captain Conor Devaney thumped home the penalty in a manner which Lionel Messi would have envied, after his flop of a spot-kick against Iceland, 26 hours earlier (and the ‘GAA GO’ live-streaming service is available in Russia, so Messi was surely watching).

It didn’t turn the tide, though. Galway scored five unanswered points, limiting their squandering of ‘score-in-their-sleep’ chances to one. And while full-back Sean Andy O Ceallaigh’s stunning last-ditch intervention denied Roscommon’s Enda Smith a goalscoring opportunity, Galway unquestioningly deserved their win. Indeed, if Galway get their attack/defence balance correct, they are almost likely All-Ireland semi-finalists.

In 1969, the Herald’s match report headline was “The shame of it.” This year, there was no such shame. And if their pre-match prediction was just about right, so too was their post-match headline: “Paradise Lost but still all to play for.” Galway are the first-ever ‘Super Eights’ qualifiers. Roscommon may yet join them.

Munster’s hurling championship ended with more of a whimper than a bang. With Cork expected to beat already-eliminated and injury-ravaged Waterford and seal their final spot, resurgent Clare’s home game with resurgent Limerick was billed as an “effective Munster semi-final.” And the hype got to both teams. The first-half was a non-event for a normal year, let alone this year. And the drama was of an off-the-ball nature. Well…almost.

Three minutes before half-time, Clare went three points ahead, having availed of the available wind advantage. But Clare’s David Reidy and Limerick’s David Burns accidentally collided off the ball in front of goal. And Limerick’s Tom Condon interpreted Burns’ prone state as the result of deliberate action by Reidy, running some yards to an incident he clearly hadn’t seen, to jab the butt of his hurley into Reidy’s very nether regions.

It was common assault…which firmly tested RTE co-commentator Michael Duignan’s ability to NOT say ‘bollocks’ on national telly. And after referee James Owens consulted extensively with other officials, Condon, on as a sub only 20 minutes earlier, saw red for seeing red. However, after further consultation, Reidy discovered that being jabbed in the bollocks with the butt of a hurley was also a red-card offence.

Replays suggested Reidy may have attempted a similar move on Condon and was simply beaten to it. But the general consensus was that Reidy’s red was rescindable rubbish. That, it was also noted, wasn’t much use to Clare. Yet the pattern of the game wasn’t disrupted, even if the pattern of Reidy’s bodily-fluid functions probably was. Clare won by 11 points and sailed into the Munster final. However, in Thurles, Waterford were leading Cork, thereby giving Limerick a Munster final ticket their afternoon had hardly merited.

The pivotal moment in Thurles resembled the previous week’s turnaround in Clare’s fortunes at the same venue. On 67 minutes, Seamus Harmedy’s fabulous individual goal put Cork a point ahead. But Waterford were a point up as seven minutes’ stoppage-time loomed. Then Shane Kingston levelled from halfway to Kilkenny before Waterford’s Tom Ryan had his point-bound effort blocked-down by Bill Cooper…straight to Cork’s Pat Horgan, who pointed unhesitatingly.

And Waterford, having had so much taken out of them all championship, had nothing left to give. Cork eventually won by three points. And Waterford manager Derek McGrath resigned his post two days later, with his popularity and integrity deservedly intact.

Limerick will play the winners of the second-tier Joe McDonagh Cup (Carlow or Westmeath) in a preliminary quarter-final. And, like Leinster’s third-placed team, Wexford. More will be heard from them in this year’s All-Ireland championship. Cork and Clare, meanwhile, meet in Munster’s final for the second consecutive year, on July 1st.

This coming weekend, football retakes centre-stage, with three provincial finals and eight qualifiers. The losing provincial semi-finalists enter the qualifiers, hence last weekend being qualifier-free. Early qualifier experiences showed teams playing six days after defeats had decisive psychological disadvantages. Thus, after a decade-and-a-half, the GAA eliminated the six-day gap.

Unless something weirds out, Kerry, Donegal and Dublin should be Munster, Ulster and Leinster champions respectively, in that chronological order (the Cork/Kerry Munster final in Cork happening on Saturday, in a break with GAA tradition which, unusually, isn’t SKY’s fault. SKY will show the Tipperary/Mayo football qualifier in Thurles, a 2016 All-Ireland semi-final pairing, with Mayo convincing favourites but less-convincing winners. It’s similar odds again. But nothing much would have to weird out for Tipp to take advantage of their home advantage.

Monaghan, Tyrone, Cavan, Louth, Clare, Armagh and Longford will be qualifier favourites. And on Sunday night, RTE will broadcast the last Sunday Game highlights programme to threaten a Monday finish as the matches get fewer and more important in inverse proportion. Last Sunday was a calm before the storms. And the business end of Championship is here.