GAA Championship, Week Seven: The Munsters

by | Aug 13, 2021

So, hurling semi-final weekend delivered again. One awesome game, one awesome team performance. And a truck shedding hay bales across the main Limerick-to-Dublin road, the most Irish summer way of delaying a throw-in.

Munster is Ireland’s major hurling province, about which there was inexplicable debate until losing Munster semi-finalists Cork VERY eventually beat Leinster champions Kilkenny, in yet another classic encounter. Heated debate, too, when Munster-man Anthony Daly referred to the Munster and Leinster “conferences” during RTE’s pre-match build-up and Leinster-man Jackie Tyrell snapped back “Leinster’s a province.”

Saturday night’s semi-final was equally competitive…for 20 minutes. I’d written that the 2020 All-Ireland final re-match was no guarantee of a repeat result. But Limerick ultimately swaggered to a repeat of last December’s 11-point win over Waterford, despite being a man down for the closing 10 minutes.

Throw-in was delayed by half-an-hour because most of the permitted 24,000 fans were still slaloming through the hay bales on the M7 motorway as the scheduled start time approached. The teams reached Croke Park unhindered by misplaced cattle feed and were happy to start on time. But the GAA put fans first (history in itself, that) figuring correctly that fans long-starved of the opportunity to BE fans should have every opportunity to be fans for the whole game.

The rush to minimise further delay produced on-field chaos, the TV pictures of which were filed under ‘comic’ once it was clear no-one got hurt. Referee John Keenan threw the ball in so soon after the Artane Band finished the National Anthem that they were ALL STILL ON THE PITCH, marching off in formation until they scattered, upon realising that the match was on…and hurtling towards them, eventually scurrying to safety.

Limerick began like they were mentally stuck on the M7. Waterford tore into them, contesting every ball with, well, Limerick-type intensity, crowding them out across the pitch and getting their fans on their feet in excited appreciation (“throwing the kitchen sink…and everything else that was in the house,” noted RTE commentator Marty Morrissey, approvingly.

They went too far on five minutes, though. Jamie Barron reacted to a foul by Limerick’s towering Gearoid Hegarty by thumping Hegarty in the ribcage (as high as Barron could reach with any power). The crowd reaction to the big screen replay indicated concern for Barron’s future participation. But Keenan kept his cards in his pocket (he wouldn’t be so lenient later on). Alas, amid the ferocity, Waterford forgot how to shoot, spurning six presentable point chances. No team takes every chance in such a spell (bar Cork – see below). But no team should miss every chance either.

Limerick thus led by a point at the first-half water-break. And, to the disgust of RTE co-commentator Michael Duignan, they got the tactics board out during what should be a refreshment break only. “Well, I mentioned the white board before. That’s not what a water break is about. Limerick will be fixing the tactics,” he noted, correctly, concluding: “These water-breaks have to go. During Covid in the early days, grand. But there’s no need for them at elite sport level now.” Cross, he was.

Indeed, the water break proved pivotal. Yes, Waterford had only been level for the first 52 seconds of the match, before mercurial Limerick half-forward Cian Lynch mercurially opened the scoring. But they were only level for another 40 seconds as Limerick remorselessly built an eight-point half-time lead. And they were never close to being level again.

Limerick led by ten on 43 minutes. And the spectacle was only saved, briefly, by a Waterford mini-revival which reduced the gap to six. The water break, due by the 55th minute, may have stalled Waterford’s momentum, anyway. But before it was taken, Hegarty powered through the previously impressive Conor Prunty and found Aaron Gillane, who bulged the roof of the net. Game. Over.

But not the drama. Limerick forward Peter Casey got involved off-the-ball with defender Conor Gleeson, himself just back from suspension for seeing red 14 days earlier. The incident flashed briefly JUST out of every available camera shot, as if by dastardly design. So we only saw Gleeson fall backwards and Casey clutch his helmet. However, after consulting his umpires, Keenan sent Casey off for what emerged as a retaliatory attempted head-butt after the remarkably unpunished Gleeson jabbed him with his hurley, the helmet clutch contextualised as “WTF have I done?”

Pending successful appeal, Casey will miss the final. Limerick boss John Kiely, channelling his inner Arsene Wenger, said he hadn’t seen the incident but was “looking forward” to doing so, as it wasn’t “in Peter’s make-up at all, at all.” However, “after seeing the footage,” RTE pundit Jackie Tyrell suggested that “I don’t know if he will.” And Casey’s hot-take on his dismissal, and the over-intrusive close-ups of him in the stands after it, showed that he knew his likely fate.

This was Limerick’s ‘only’ setback, though Casey’s quality justifies the inverted commas. Having weathered Waterford’s early storm, they were back to their 2020 vintage, a mesmerising possession game, as close to ‘tiki-taka’ as hurling can get. And while Waterford had a slew of late goal chances (three in one memorable goalmouth scramble), most post-dated Casey’s departure. A repeat performance in the 22nd August final, and Cork and Kilkenny were meeting on Sunday for the ‘privilege’ of being well-beaten in that final.

A repeat of Cork’s Sunday performance will make a thriller of it, though. Indeed, between the 42nd and 62nd minutes, Cork were at…Limerick’s best, deservedly outscoring Kilkenny by 0-13 to 0-3 and putting the game to bed. Except, as regular readers will know…Brian Cody, who remains mystically capable of getting 105% out of his teams, even when tactically mastered, as he was on Sunday by Cork supremo Kieran Kingston.

One-dimensional is a polite term for Kilkenny during Cork’s second-half exhibition. But this one dimension still forced extra-time. They were aided by Cork’s collywobbles when they first saw open road between them and the finish line but Kilkenny were only in touch at all because of the attitude Cody still instils in all his players, regardless of ability. And that wasn’t enough, as Kingston’s second-half tactical tweaks bore fruit in extra-time.

Kilkenny led by four points after the opening exchanges. Then Cork rattled off five-in-a-row before being stymied by the accursed water-break (Duignan wasn’t on co-commentary but my thoughts about the water-break were in my head in his voice). As in their Leinster semi against Wexford, Kilkenny led 0-15 to 0-14 at half-time, having VERY not been the better side, yet having had the half’s only goal chances and shot eight wides to Cork’s three. And they stretched the lead out to four, seven minutes after it. Enter Cork. At pace.

Cork speedster Jack O’Connor was so unnoticed in the first 40 minutes that I wondered if he’d been subbed unnoticed. But Kingston’s switches brought O’Connor back into view, and his son Shane onto the pitch, after his goals in each of Cork’s previous three Championship outings had somehow (and somehow correctly) not kept him off the bench on Sunday. By the time Kingston junior landed his first point with his first touch, six minutes after coming on, the deficit was only one.

Adrian Mullen spurned a gifted goal chance to make it four again almost immediately. But Cork soon led by a point…which would have been four had Kilkenny keeper Eoin Murphy not brilliantly tipped O’Connor’s rasping drive onto the post. Kingston manufactured a point as the ball broke. And after the water-break, the game developed a pattern. Kilkenny bombed high balls towards their forwards. And whoever got the first touch to the dropping ball, Cork would get the last touch, race downfield and land scores from all angles, stretching their lead out to six with eight minutes’ normal time left.

Cork led similarly in their last semi-final in 2018. But Limerick, of all teams. hauled them in before winning in extra-time. And Kilkenny reduced the gap to two before Cork steadied things, and led by three with 25 seconds of stoppage-time left, when the excellent Patrick Horgan missed a “bet the house on it” 65. No matter. There were only 14 seconds left when Murphy bombed in another high ball. And, as per, Cork won it and raced downfield.

But this time, as RTE pundit Anthony Daly put it, afterwards: “Janey Mac, time’s up, give it up the field.” Instead, Tim O’Mahony lost possession to Kilkenny’s man-of-the-match, Padraig Walsh. Walsh fabulously found Mullen, and Mullen cut inside and blasted the ball low into the corner of the net, as RTE co-commentator Brendan Cummins sounded like he was climaxing in the com-box.

Kilkenny even won the resultant puck-out and were heading forward again. But referee Feargal Horgan knew a Kilkenny win would REALLY take the pi*s…and Mullen’s goal was 14 seconds after the end of stoppage-time anyway. A now calmer Cummins noted: “I know for years playing against (Kilkenny), they’re never bet until you’re back inside in the dressing-room…or maybe back in Thurles.” Sky Sports pundit Antony Nash, Cork’s keeper in 2018, said it was handy that his mic was muted when Mullen scored. Meanwhile, my mate Pete, a second-generation Kilkenny man, laughed…and laughed.

Punditry cliché dictated that Kilkenny would “have the momentum” going into extra-time. But if a one minute water-break could reverse momentum (see Michael Duignan for details), 10 minutes in the dressing-room was plenty enough time for Cork to remind themselves that they’d been the better team. And so it proved during a thrilling first extra-time period. Murphy produced a save for the ages to deny Alan Cadogan with the goal gaping. Large, and largely ineffective, Kilkenny sub Walter Walsh was denied by a more routine save from Cork keeper Patrick Collins.

And two minutes from extra-time half-time, with the scores level again, Cork finally sped for home, literally, as O’Connor at last found open road between him and the goal, breezed past Kilkenny defenders as if they were hay bales strewn across the M7 and slammed home an unstoppable (even by Murphy) shot. Kilkenny introduced veteran-of-better-days Richie Hogan for the second half. But well though he played, the diminutive Hogan was literally too little, too late. Cork eventually won by five. Which was about right.

Sky AND RTE took the unusual, but probably correct, decision to make sub Kingston man-of-the-match. And there was a lot of talk of tense breakfast tables in the Kingston household because Dad dropped the son and the son responded like THAT. The argument now is whether Shane should start the final. However, Cork will have a LOT more to think about if Limerick play as they did last Saturday, last year and, for what it’s worth, the last time the sides met at Croke Park.

The Covid-enforced championship structure has worked savagely against some teams. Especially Waterford, amateur players with real-life commitments, for whom four games in 22 days proved too much. But, after this year’s brilliant All-Ireland hurling championship, Sunday week’s winners will be worthy All-Ireland champions.

Next weekend should have been football semi-final weekend. But Ulster champions Tyrone, due to face Munster champions Kerry on Sunday, instead face huge Covid “issues” within their camp, which at the time of typing has necessitated the semi-final’s rescheduling for the following Saturday, 21st August and, subsequently, the final’s postponement for six days, to 3pm on Saturday 4th September.

Tyrone were down two players and joint-manager Feargal Logan for the Ulster final a fortnight ago. And last Sunday, the county board announced that after “a number of positive test results,” pre-final, “all panellists and management” would be tested, with the results known by Monday, and “a number of players self-isolating” while awaiting them. “Several” more players tested positive. And while Tyrone GAA formally “welcomed” the six-day deferment, virus-free joint-manager Brian Dooher and county board chairman Michael Kerr were subsequently less welcoming

Dooher told BBC Northern Ireland that Tyrone had wanted a two-week delay, “based on our experiences with Covid to date” concerning players’ full recovery time. “We’ll struggle to field a team on Saturday week,” he added, headline-grabbingly, as only half the panel were in full training and “we have had concerned parents on about the health of their children on the panel,” Which was in no way tugging at the heartstrings. And he suggested that there was “a possibility, definitely” that Tyrone would have to forfeit the fixture.

Echoing this sentiment, Kerr told a county board meeting that “the management will not be making a decision until this weekend on whether we will be capable of fulfilling the fixture.” And “while we appreciate the postponement allows us to field a team,” he expressed disappointment that it hadn’t “given us sufficient time to prepare a proper challenge to Kerry.” Which was in no way getting his excuses for defeat in early.

Seven-in-a-row seekers Dublin face Mayo on Saturday evening at 6pm, live on Sky Sports Arena, with Mayo, for once, the form team, after a well-documented decade of draws, narrow defeats and plucky underdog-ism in this fixture. This favoured status doesn’t necessarily suit them. But Dublin/Mayo matches are rarely one-sided. And they will likely be even more rarely so after Saturday.

Stop press: Well… it seems Peter Casey was WRONG about Peter Casey’s “likely fate” after his red card last Saturday (and, yeah, so was I). The dismissal was successfully appealed late Thursday night. Ref John Keenan took an umpire’s advice to dismiss Casey, rather than a linesman’s advice to book Casey and fellow ‘combatant’ Conor Gleeson. Audio of his conversations, played at Casey’s hearing, suggested Keenan meant to re-consult his linesman, an inter-county ref who was nearest to the incident, after consulting the umpire. But he didn’t. So, Casey plays. And, fine player though he is, the best response to that is “mmmmm…”