GAA Championships 2022, Week 7: Provincial Championships, The Unfond Farewell
One upshot of 2023’s radical overhaul of the All-Ireland inter-county Gaelic Football championship is the end of the four provincial championships “as we know them.” Before last weekend, when 2022’s four finals were staged, the consensus was that they would not be missed. But now, the consensus is that they will…definitely not be missed.
The most competitive final, Derry’s well-received extra-time victory over Donegal in Ulster, was grisly. The most entertaining, Galway’s high-scoring win over Roscommon, wasn’t as close as their three-point winning margin suggests. And the Munster and Leinster deciders were competitive wash-outs, Kerry and Dublin predictably unruffled on the way to their umpteenth titles.
Kerry’s first 23-point Munster final win since…er…2021 exemplified the mismatches which have speeded the provincial championships’ demise. They led visitors Limerick by nine points at half-time without playing well, thus rendering the spectacle unwatchable. And it was far too easy for them after the break. The margin reflected the gulf between them and an up-and-coming Limerick, who still have miles to up-and-go. They learned nothing that they, and we, didn’t already know. And they may not be fully tested until a putative All-Ireland semi-final against an in-vogue again Dublin.
Limerick’s mountainous full-forward Josh Ryan pointed what RTE co-commentator Kevin McStay called the “free of the championship.” McStay was clutching at kindness straws but it WAS an impressive kick from near the sideline. And Cian Sheehan scored three late points from half-back. But it was a procession for a Kerry side missing star forward David Clifford due to an injury of concerningly unspecified nature and seriousness (although brother Paudie often made it look as if there WERE two Cliffords on the pitch). And it says it all that Fitzgerald Stadium was a third full for the biggest game it will hold all year. The 30,000 empty seats probably enjoyed it more.
Kildare should have been delighted to hold Dublin to seven first-half points in the Leinster final at Dublin’s “neutral” Croke Park, despite only scoring six themselves. The problem was the Dubs’ five goals. After Ciaran Kilkenny netted the Dubs’ first, on five minutes, it took Kildare another 27 minutes to get their points tally past Dublin’s goal haul. Kildare’s mercurial, always watchable, Danial Flynn threatened a goal of the season contender on 29 minutes, heading for the Wicklow mountains before firing across goal and wide. But by then, the score was an alliterative, shameful 5-5 to 0-5.
Kildare belatedly introduced some defensive organisation after a half-time team-talk from boss Glen Ryan and others which could be heard way beyond the confines of their dressing room. And Dublin, as they did against Meath in their previous match, relaxed to the point of “losing” the second half.
This first-half was Dublin at their uncomplicated, ruthless best. Slick, quick and dangerous to meet. They produced nothing like it last year, when they won the Leinster title with the same fixture list (Wexford, Meath and Kildare) at the same venues but by nine-points-per-game less. And the suggestion is that they haven’t been this dynamic for about seven years. But however it was achieved, the Dubs have now won 12 (!) consecutive provincial titles and 17 of the last 18. And the chapter of the team’s Wikipedia entry half-jokingly headed “The Hard Years 2021-“ looks complete.
As I predicted and, as a Roscommon fan, feared, Galway were inspired to Connacht final victory by a fully-functioning Shane Walsh. And this was eminently foreseeable. The last time a 100% fit Walsh played in a Connacht decider against Roscommon, in 2018, Galway won. Also, the counties contested four consecutive Connacht finals, pre-pandemic. Galway won the first and third. So it was simply their turn. At least that’s what I’m telling myself, as a Roscommon fan.
Galway were nine points ahead with xx minutes left. And had the scoring stopped there, the result would not have flattered them. Walsh was merely among the stars, as Galwegians impressed across the pitch, from half-backs John Daly and Cillian McDaid, via long-time star midfielder Paul Conroy, to Rob Finnerty and Damien Comer up front. Daly was ubiquitous, Conroy towering and Finnerty joining Walsh in the ‘unplayable’ column.
The ease and frequency with which Galway advanced 60 yards upfield gave them an attacking momentum Roscommon lacked. Things might have been different if Roscommon’s Enda Smith hadn’t butchered a goal chance just before Shane Walsh shimmied through at the other end and fired ow and powerfully through the ball-width gap between Roscommon keeper Colm Lavin’s right-hand and his right-hand post. And they might have been different if Finnerty’s shot, a minute before half-time, had rebounded off the post anywhere but straight to Patrick Kelly, who thumped the ball into the net. But probably not.
Roscommon were kept at an increasingly safe distance in the second half until a too-late revival, inspired by full-back Conor Daly’s well-worked goal and sub Diarmuid Murtagh’s pile-driven one with the game’s last kick. In-between, Roscommon were denied a fairly clear penalty by experienced ref Joe McQuillan. And things might have differen…oh wait…I’ve clutched at that straw already. “Routine enough,” was how RTE’s “as it happened” report categorised Galway’s win. Which it was. Decent game, though. Unlike…
“Derry v Donegal – this is it,” the previews proclaimed, missing two letters. RTE’s Marty Morrissey, the most glass half-full of commentators, called the game “brutal.” A raucous crowd grew silent after ten, scoreless, art-free minutes. There were groans when four minutes’ second-half stoppage-time was announced. And the gripping finish was just a sticking-plaster on an open sore of a game. Nonetheless, Derry’s first Ulster title this century could have been won one-nil for all their fans cared. And Donegal rightly copped most of the flak for the appalling spectacle.
We might have waited forever for the game’s first score if Donegal defender Odhran McFadden Ferry hadn’t tripped over his own name, allowing Neil Toner to set up Niall Loughlin to find the net. Derry then briefly played well. But having been 1-3 to 0-1 behind on 18 minutes, Donegal were somehow only a horribly-squirted Michael Langan shot from drawing level right on half-time.
RTE’s half-time analysts called Donegal “driven by fear.” Colm O’Rourke wanted them to “really push hard for the first ten minutes” after the break. And it took them 42 seconds to begin to answer his call, McFadden Ferry netting when Derry keeper Odran Lynch parried Langan’s drive into his path. Ubiquitous RTE co-commentator McStay screamed “square ball,” as McFadden Ferry found the net. “He looked like he was living there,” McStay added. But the goal stood, just about correctly.
Alas, Donegal took O’Rourke a little too literally, ceding the momentum back to Derry after ten second-half minutes. Then tension assumed control. Veteran talisman Michael Murphy’s astounding point on the run from 50 yards helped Donegal go two-up again on 62 minutes. But they retreated in fear again, gifting Derry two points by fiddle-arsing about in front of their own goal. Then the football ground to an abysmal halt without further score, as Derry looked paralysed by inexperience and Donegal looked paralysed by old age.
Extra-time was relatively high-scoring, all things considered. Star men Brendan Rogers and Conor Glass landed the decisive last two points minutes from the end and Derry’s 15-man defence in their own square to repel Murphy’s late free. Indeed, the explosion of joy as Derry raced downfield to herald the final whistle almost erased the previous 90 minutes from the memory banks. For a bit.
RTE pundit Pat Spillane found a slot in his busy ‘being a dick’ schedule to declare that Derry’s forwards hadn’t “the quality to win an All-Ireland.” But not all of Spillane’s eight All-Ireland titles with Kerry in the 1970s and 80s were harder-earned than this Ulster title. And his view may especially surprise reigning All-Ireland champions Tyrone.
Cavan and Offaly currently look favourites for the second-tier Tailteann Cup, which sprang into more life last weekend than the supposed first-tier. Even the mismatches weren’t that mismatched. Cavan breezed past Down by nine points, while Offaly had eight to spare against plucky Wicklow. Elsewhere, Carlow shocked Tipperary, Fermanagh squeezed past Longford, Westmeath came from behind to beat Laois, Leitrim’s fine first half overpowered Antrim. And Sligo needed a last-minute leveller and extra-time to overcome London, whose uber-plucky challenge was undermined by a saved penalty and two red cards.
The folly of regionalising the competition until the semi-finals was highlighted by teams from the same province contesting three of the quarter-finals. But the novelty average was rocket-launched by New York visiting Offaly. And Pat Spillane took time out of his afore-mentioned ‘being a dick’ schedule to declare the Tailteann Cup a “huge success.” His son, imaginatively named ‘Pat,’ plays for Sligo. .
Back at tier-one, its big games all the way until July’s finals. May’s action left only nine matches in the hurling championship, which is silly for a summer sport. The two provincial finals are on RTE/GAAGO. Galway/Kilkenny in Leinster, 7pm Saturday and Limerick/Clare in Munster, 4pm Sunday. Sky Sports Arena has the Mayo/Monaghan football qualifier at 4 on Saturday. While for THE qualifier, Armagh/Tyrone, at 1.30 on Sunday, its back to RTE/GAAGO. Parental advisory, that one, I would suggest..
GAAGO also has the other two football qualifiers (Cork/Louth and Clare/Meath at 2 and 6 on Saturday), hurling’s second-tier Joe McDonagh Cup final (Antrim/Kerry, 4.30 Saturday) and the Offaly/New York and Leitrim/Sligo Tailteann Cup quarters (2pm Saturday, 3pm Sunday). In fact, you could watch non-stop GAA for six-and-a-half Saturday hours and four Sunday ones…and that’s without extra-time and penalties. What better way for Republicans to spend Jubilee weekend?