GAA Championship, Week Two – Rules Is Rules

by | Jul 9, 2021

The GAA’s natural order was temporarily restored by last weekend’s classic hurling, stodgy football, and ridiculous rules.

After week one’s live football mismatches, Sky Sports Arena must have been relieved when last weekend’s most one-sided looking hurling encounter, the first of Saturday’s TV triple-bill, turned in the Championship’s first shock. It was more of a shock for being Dublin’s second consecutive Leinster championship win over All-Ireland title-tipped Galway. And it was a brave, brilliant Dublin display, exemplified by forward James Madden, who played the day after his father’s funeral.

Hurling’s provincial championship losers enter a qualifying competition, a “back door” into the All-Ireland quarter-finals. But that didn’t lessen the intensity on show on Saturday…from all bar Galway. And the second Leinster semi-final, Kilkenny/Wexford, was as intense as it gets. And exciting. And skilful. And dramatic. And controversial. And…etc. A sensational encounter, which Kilkenny won by eight points after extra-time.

After ten seconds, Kilkenny led by a point. But for much of a pulsating half, Wexford were outstanding, scoring points of all shapes and sizes from all angles, with captain Lee Chin a powerhouse in open play and perfection from placed balls. And at half-time…Kilkenny led by a point. No…me neither.

AND Kilkenny spurned three goal chances, including 20-year-old Eoin Cody hitting the post. Then, with starman TJ Reid coming to life, they led by four, five minutes after the restart, only for Wexford to draw level within nine minutes. This started an insane ebb-and-flow on the scoreboard and on the pitch, ‘aided’ by referee Fergal Horgan, who ‘let the game flow’ by only penalising every third foul…which served the spectacle magnificently.

The sides were level midway through the second half when Kilkenny boss Brian Cody introduced the man-mountainous Walter Walsh. Cody’s successes have never been convincingly attributed to tactical nous. And Kilkenny were still in this match despite tactics based on hitting the ball as far as possible and hoping for the best. Walsh’s introduction promised more of the same. But Kilkenny led by two with 12 minutes left, after full-back Tommy Walsh soloed upfield like a nervous egg-and-spoon racer at a primary school sports day but still landed a ridiculous long-range point.

Wexford’s response was to introduce sub David Dunne, get keeper Mark Fanning to puck the ball LONG and hope that defenders would collide and leave Dunne clean through on goal. Fanning pucked (careful how you say that), defenders collided and Dunne super-subbed the ball into the net. Wexford then powered three points clear with eight minutes left.

However, within three minutes, it was all-square again, Walter Walsh pinging one over after tip-toeing 40 yards along the touchline like a tightrope walker. They immediately led again only to be immediately drawn level again, only for Cody to re-emerge with a fine goal. Game over? God, no. Two more frees from Chin left one in it with a minute’s stoppage-time left. And then the drama REALLY began.

Kilkenny keeper Eoin Murphy batted Liam Ryan’s 70-yard shot down as it headed over the bar, having earlier prevented two points this way. But the loose ball was flicked to the net by Conor McDonald, as an umpire raised a white flag to indicate a point. Horgan called for video assistance (sound familiar, soccer fans?) via the ‘Hawkeye’ system which shows if shots go wide. This ball clearly hadn’t, and “Ta!” (the Irish for ‘yes’) appeared on the Hawkeye screen to ‘confirm’ the point. Kilkenny said, ahem, “ta” and extra-time loomed.

Sky TV pundit and former Cork keeper Anthony Nash wondered aloud if Hawkeye had simply been asked “did the ball go between the posts?” as his goalkeeping instincts told him Murphy had prevented the point. On RTE’s highlights show ‘The Sunday Game,’ pundit and Nash’s predecessor Cork keeper Donal Og Cusack said Hawkeye’s graphic “confused people,” by showing the ball’s trajectory well past the crossbar but giving no indication of when Murphy intervened. “Eoin Murphy is good,” Og Cusack noted. “But Inspector Gadget wouldn’t be able to get the ball if it was gone that far back.”

Extra-time had barely started when Wexford’s Conal Flood was on an open road goalwards. Inspector Gadget pulled Flood down and was sin-binned for 10 minutes. And a new hurling rule (to which we WILL return) meant it was a penalty, despite the foul being outside the area.

New Kilkenny keeper Darren Brennan nearly saved Fanning’s penalty in a bit of keeper-on-keeper action. But Kilkenny were three points and, for half of extra-time, a man down. Game over? God, no. Wexford were audibly tiring. And 14-man Kilkenny scored four of the next five points. Wexford had a one point, half-time-in-extra-time lead. But even manager Davy Fitzgerald looked exhausted as he emerged from Wexford’s half-time huddle.

Kilkenny landed three points in-a-row and when Wexford threatened again, Inspector Gadget was back, bravely smothering Rory O’Connor’s goalbound effort. And a minute later, Walter Walsh caught Kilkenny’s umpteenth long ball, ran for goal and smashed it over-arm past Fanning. Game over? God, n…oh…wait…yes. And as for the idea that hurling was getting boring, Patrick Earley noted in the Irish Independent newspaper’s ‘as it happened’ commentary: “Crisis over, lads, the game is absolutely fine. Leave it alone.”

Kilkenny are warm favourites for the Leinster Final against Dublin. But Galway were warm favourites for the semi-final against Dublin. Perhaps believing the hype, they gunned for early goals to put Dublin’s challenge to bed and have an early night ahead of ‘bigger’ games. Dublin keeper Alan Nolan had other ideas (though it would be odd if he’d had the same ones), making two fine saves from off-radar Galway super-shooter Joe Canning.

Dublin led by five points ten minutes before half-time. Galway recovered to be two behind AT half-time. But the gap was soon five again, Nolan even scoring himself from miles out. Then, eight minutes after the break, Conor Whelan goaled to cut the gap to two again, before Dublin fashioned three goal chances. They ‘butchered’ one, a common phrase in punditry parlance this season. Galway keeper Eanna Murphy saved another. But then Chris Crummey rounded Murphy and netted Oisin O’Rourke’s wonderful crossfield pass. Dublin were five-up again. And that was it for Galwegian gap-cutting.

Ordinarily, Limerick might have considered an eight-point win over Cork a good evening’s work. But neither side were at their best in an encounter made to look all-the-more scratchy by immediately following Kilkenny/Wexford. Cork led on 16 minutes when Shane Kingston showed that he’s not just in the team because he’s the manager’s son when he found the net. But the game’s pivotal moments pivoted to Limerick.

Ten minutes before half-time, Limerick’s Peter Casey was sin-binned after he and team-mate Declam Hannan tried to fell goalbound Conor Cahalane just outside the area. It was a penalty (the new rule again). But the normally dead-eyed Patrick Horgan’s shot was brilliantly saved by Limerick keeper Nicky Quaid. And Casey returned from his ten minutes off to find Limerick six points up thanks to two goals in a minute as stoppage-time began; Darragh O’Donovan’s deflected shot, followed by Kyle Hayes’ unstoppable one.

Both sides’ shooting disintegrated after half-time. And Limerick semi-disintegrated in general play too, as Cork reduced their deficit to four with seven minutes left. They got a second wind, though, completing a second dominant stoppage-time of the evening. Not the greatest game. But a qualifying competition with Galway, Wexford and Cork in it could be fun.

Clare, too. They led Tipperary by a point after a better half of hurling than even Kilkenny and Wexford had mustered. But…oh God…the new rule.

Clare soon ended all debate about whether playing a week earlier would make them match sharper than Tipp, or knacker them out. It was emphatically the former. For 12 minutes. After which they led by seven points, aided by Ian Galvin’s goal. Star man Tony Kelly was having a quiet game, though. And Tipp found their form, levelling on 19 minutes, with a Michael Breen goal to make lovers of “ground hurling” drool. Meanwhile, Tony Kelly was having a quiet game.

It went thrillingly score-for-score until half-time. But Clare keeper Eibhear Qulligan made a fine save to stop Tipp leading by five points entering stoppage-time. Then Tony Kelly made some noise, receiving a David Reidy pass with his back to goal and flashing it into the net before you could say “having a quiet game.” Then…the new rule.

Clare led by two, just after half-time when Tipp’s Jake Morris was photogenically slide-tackled skyward near the touchline by Aidan McCarthy. To universal amazement, Owens deemed the situation a goalscoring opportunity, and sin-binned McCarthy, despite Clare defenders’ proximity. “A goalscoring chance out there?” asked bemused RTE commentator Ger Canning. And, as graphically demonstrated on-line, the foul was “committed closer to the Ennis Road” (outside the ground) “than it was to the goal-line.”

Tipp outscored Clare by 2-4 to 0-2 with their man advantage. One goal was a Seamus Callinan mishit which even Owens wouldn’t have deemed a goalscoring opportunity. And Owens had more decisions to make against Clare before the end, as they reduced the final gap to four points. None, though, were as barmy, as the first. “Throw it in the river,” said RTE pundit Jackie Tyrell, discussing the rule post-match. “Which river?” a nation cried.

More one-sided football last weekend. And one of the closer games, Galway’s form-book, five-point win in Roscommon, was as dismally grey as the weather. Having had woeful defensive records in recent years, Roscommon hired defensive coach Steven Poacher, who coached lower division Carlow to relative success by boring the arse off all-comers with packed defences. Roscommon tried out the ‘full Poacher’ for the first time last Sunday…and got proper pelters for “outdated” tactics.

They worked…for a bit. They were only a point behind at half-time. And the second quarter wasn’t actually that bad. The first quarter WAS that bad, though. And Roscommon were that bad in the third quarter, as Galway improved, led by mercurial forward Shane Walsh (a joy to watch when he’s not playing against your team) and young midfelder and pin-point accurate free-taker Matty Tierney (remember the name etc…).

Galway should have clinched victory before Tierney’s 65th-minute goal, though, which was immediately followed by a late injury scare. Pre-match chat was that Walsh wouldn’t start, because of a hamstring problem. Post-match reality was that he went off with that hamstring problem. Their season likely rests on that hamstring not being a problem.

Monaghan and Armagh semi-cantered through home Ulster championship quarter-final wins, over Fermanagh and Antrim respectively. They meet each other in the semis. And there were cakewalks-a-plenty in Leinster, with Westmeath and Meath hammering Laois and Longford. Kildare/Offaly was closer, but Kildare’s win was rarely in doubt. However, the most-expected walk-of-cakes didn’t materialise.

Dublin wore down fourth-division Wexford (and most watching neutrals), with eight points being about a half-to-a-third of the predicted winning margin. It was admirable Wexford-pluck against Dublin-stodge for the most part. But even if Dublin had won easily, the big story would have been off-the-pitch.

Many of last year’s Dubs have retired, possibly due to back-pain from the Leinster and All-Ireland medals in their arse pockets. Thirty-nine year-old goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton, however, “has not retired, he’s a very naughty boy just stepped away,” according to Dublin manager Dessie Farrell, after Cluxton didn’t join the Dublin panel for Sunday.

Cluxton speaks rarely to any media. So comment on what he’s ‘up to’ has had to be speculative. Even from Farrell himself. On Sunday, he didn’t know “whether Stephen will be back or not.” Cluxton had “gone back to his club,” Parnell’s in North Dublin, to “take time to heal the body” (though he lined out at centre half-back for them this week) and maybe re-generate the appetite. I think he’s spoken about it in the group.”

Sunday Game pundit Toma O Se found it “fascinating” that Farrell didn’t know, when “you’re inside in Championship.” And he advised Cluxton to “tell him if you’re retired. If you’re finished, just say it.” Farrell said Cluxton’s 20 years’ “service” to Dublin earned him “time and space to make up his mind.” But from last December’s All-Ireland final to two weeks “inside” this year’s Championship seems a LOT of time and space, even for a Gaelic Football legend such as Cluxton. Toss a coin, mate, if you can’t decide.

There are four Covid-delayed underage All-Ireland semi-finals and finals this weekend, including the Roscommon/Kerry minor (under-17) football semi-final, of which you might never hear the last if we/Roscommon win…and might never hear of again if we lose.

Sky Sports Arena has a Saturday football double-bill, Tyrone against reigning champions but rank outsiders Cavan in an Ulster football quarter-final and Kerry against reigning champions but rank outsiders Tipperary in a Munster football semi. One-sided football hits RTE on Sunday with Mayo’s Connacht semi against Leitrim. Donegal’s Ulster quarter against Derry could also be unclose. But Derry are an improving outfit, so maybe not. Back on Saturday. Antrim hurlers face Laois, with the losers exiting, and relegated from, Championship. And its Cork/Limerick again, this time in Munster’s football semi-final.

A bit of a calm before the storm, then. New rule permitting, of course.