GAA Championship, Week One: Up & Running, For Now

by | Oct 28, 2020

Last Saturday night, live on Sky Sports Little Mix (or something), the 2020 Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) All-Ireland championships began, with a Leinster Senior Hurling Championship victory for Dublin over Laois.

The game took place in Dublin’s Croke Park, with the permitted officials and media rattling around considerably in an 82,800 capacity stadium. Social distancing was not a problem in the stands. Nor in the Laois defence, through which Dublin ran regular lanes, firing an impressive two goals and thirty-one points, almost exactly half, 1-16, to Donal Burke.

And already Burke’s display is arguably only the second-best individual performance of the championship. Because, as with Gaelic football, hurling forwards appear to have had better lockdowns than backs. And when Des Cahill, presenter of Irish state television RTE’s Match-of-the-Day equivalent, The Sunday Game, noted that “hurling seems to be becoming a higher-scoring game,” it was hard not to shout a Sherlock-based expletive at the screen.

In Sunday’s Munster hurling opener, Limerick barely created a goal chance but racked up 36 (THIRTY-SIX) points in an, eventually, comfortable win over Clare (insert your own “of course they won against one woman” joke here). A score every two minutes is ridiculous, even for the “higher-scoring game” Cahill evidently only just noticed. And Limerick established their control of the match, after the sides shared 30 points in the first half, with a short spell of a minute every two scores, just after half-time. Good job I didn’t think that a good time to “nip to the toilet” as “I’ll only miss a couple of minutes.”

Limerick’s victory was a team effort. While at times, the Clare team was actually one man, instead of nominatively one woman. As the Irish sports website tweeted at half-time: “what price Tony Kelly to beat Limerick today?” Kelly scored 17 points, not as big a haul as Burke’s but with more scores from open play, against a better defence. His post-match interview after receiving his man-of-the-match award was one to file in the “as if things weren’t weird enough already” column.

Reigning All-Ireland champions Tipp will be reigning Munster champions Limerick’s provincial semi-final opposition next Sunday, in what was billed as hurling’s “game-of-the-year-now” by former Tipp keeper and Sunday Game pundit Brendan Cummins. Cork/Waterford, live on Sky Sports Little Mix on Saturday afternoon, is the ‘other game.’

Limerick’s victory also meant that they retained their National Hurling League title, although that only dawned on many when the league trophy appeared for post-match presentation. Meanwhile, Kerry similarly surreally received the National Football League (NFL) trophy after they sealed their title with a facile win over a very understrength Donegal team, who had Championship in mind.

But until the relevant Covid test results are back, Championship’s future remains uncertain. Moments after last week’s 200% GAA opus was posted, news emerged of more positive Covid tests, including one Roscommon footballer, five Antrim hurlers and 27 (TWENTY-SEVEN) Offaly hurlers. Almost the entire Offaly panel (squad) were ‘close contacts’ of ONE Covid-infected player, begging the question: WTF happens at Offaly hurling training sessions?.

The NFL produced the expected plethora of dramas, which would have greatly enhanced the secondary competition’s reputation in normal times. Mayo hosted Tyrone on Sunday in an effective relegation play-off. If Monaghan avoided defeat at home to already-relegated Meath, the losers in Mayo would be relegated. And even if Monaghan lost, Mayo would have needed a draw. Monaghan drew, after a stirring comeback gave Meath their only point of a season which was better than that sounds. Mayo lost, by a point. Thus, last year’s League champions were relegated,

But it was weird beyond that. There are generally felt to be five genuine All-Ireland football title contenders, maximum, even in a season where all circumstances have added unpredictability. Mayo and Tyrone are generally felt to be two of them, having been top-four stalwarts in football rankings in recent years. And this was backed by Sunday’s high-quality game.

Tyrone are Gaelic Football’s ‘Dirty Leeds’ (the epithet applied to the talented/thuggish Leeds United outfits of the late 60s and early 70s). Under current manager, the publicly surly Mickey Harte (Marco Bielsa, without the laughs), Tyrone won their first-ever, and still only, All-Ireland titles, 2003, 2005 and 2008, inspired by star forward and current Sky Sports pundit Peter Canavan. And a Canavan starred on Sunday. Peter’s son, Darragh, shone in a Tyrone display that swapped the thuggery and over-caution of recent Tyrone teams for terrific, expansive football, from ‘rush’ goalie .Niall Morgan forward.

It would be lazy to label Kerry’s 21-year-old star forward David Clifford the ‘Lionel Messi of Gaelic Football.’ But fair. And the 20-year-old Canavan could be the ‘Cristiano Ronaldo,’ minus the preening prickery. The NFL debutant was an unexpected late inclusion in Tyrone’s team. But he justified his selection, scoring a goal and a point, his neatly-taken goal reminiscent of his Dad’s famous three-pointer in 2005’s All-Ireland final.

Tyrone were worth their eight-point interval lead, which became nine, nine minutes after the restart. Mayo keeper David Clarke’s body-language screamed “expletive-deletive” as his kick-out went gun-barrel straight to eventual man-of-the-match Conor McKenna, who had time for a comedy fall before unleashing a shot which would have taken keeper AND ball into the net had Clarke got behind it. Yet Mayo were inspired by this calamity, deservedly reducing the arrears to one before time ran out on them and 23 tears in the top-flight, an inordinately long spell in an eight-team division.

Mayo will visit Roscommon in the Connacht Championship in a fortnight, if (and it’s an atom-splitting if) they win in Leitrim on Sunday. And they will be slight favourites despite Roscommon replacing them in Division One, after a predictably loopy end to Division Two on Saturday.

Roscommon visited technically promotion-chasing Cavan, shorn of 13 players AND manager Anthony Cunningham. They all travelled to their previous week’s game in Armagh on the same bus as a player who since tested positive for Covid and so were “close contacts.” There was, though, considerable first-team experience among the replacements, including man-of-the-match Donie Smith. And Roscommon deservedly led by six points with 23 minutes left.

A week earlier, Cavan reduced a ten-point deficit to three in Kildare before spurning a good goal chance and losing by four. And this seemed tactical when Cavan reduced Roscommon’s six-point deficit to two, before spurning a good goal chance and losing by two. Two wonderful late Smith points proving the difference. And Roscommon were Division Two champions, leaving Cavan reliant on other results.

Armagh won in Clare to seal the second promotion spot, leaving Clare on six points but above Cavan, having beaten them by two points in March. And with three minutes of normal time left, Laois, on five points, were five points behind already-relegated Fermanagh (whose only win was Roscommon’s only loss) and had just had a man sent off. Cavan were safe…until man-down Laois scored three goals and three points, because of course they did, to relegate Cavan. Madder than mad, that division.

In Division Three, Leitrim paid the price for refusing to travel to Down a week earlier, when they lost at home to Tipperary and were relegated. And in Division Four, Limerick were promoted as champions, alongside Wicklow, who edged out Wexford in a “winner-goes-up” match, a week after Wexford had won in Limerick. But there’s no time for Wexford to sulk, as they start their Championship campaign on Sunday, against…Wicklow. Life comes at you fast.

All being, literally, well, Championship will now start in earnest-and-a-bit. If Limerick/Tipperary is hurling’s first “game-of-the-year” candidate, Donegal/Tyrone is football’s. Both are on what will likely be RTE’s ‘Sunday Game Live of the year,’ this coming Sunday afternoon. And the ‘Sunday Game’ highlights show will run from its traditional 9.30pm start until 11.30pm. Any delay in RTE2’s schedule and it could be the Monday Game for a bit.

This happens every year and Covid-optimists can hang their normality hat on it. Nine counties will leave the football fray this weekend, as football’s championship reverts to straight knockout due to its tight timetabling. There will be extra-time and, for the first time ever, penalties, if required, as a championship starting on Halloween needs to be over by Christmas.

The Leinster Hurling semi-finals are Saturday’s highlights, Dublin’s ‘reward’ for larruping Laois is a meeting with Kilkenny, while Galway/Wexford waters the mouth. TJ Reid and Colin Fennelly spent much of Kilkenny’s club championship outscoring opponents on their own. And Kilkenny boss since 1999, Brian Cody, is STILL Kilkenny boss. Indeed, it is hard to remember when he wasn’t…or imagine when he won’t be.

Meanwhile, Wexford boss Davy Fitzgerald coached his club, Sixmilebridge to his native Clare’s county title. “The Bridge” are managed by Tim Crowe. But even hurling fans had to ‘Google’ that, which is a reflection on these PR/personality-driven days. Current form is little guide to either semi-final, though. Because, bar Dublin, no-one has any.

Fingers crossed, then. And to everyone playing, managing, officiating or broadcasting this weekend: stay safe.