GAA Championships 2022 week 8: Munster marvels & ta-ra Tyrone

by | Jun 11, 2022

The All-Ireland championship line-ups are complete. Eight counties in the hurling, 12 in the football. Reigning football champions Tyrone are out. And six counties are in both, including, magnificently, Limerick and Clare.

Whatever about the Platinum Jubilee, Sunday’s Munster Hurling Final was the weekend’s cause for celebration. Ninety minutes of sporting art which left RTE co-commentator Michael Duignan gasping: I…am…wrecked after that. I can’t imagine what the players are like.”

Everything about Limerick’s three-point extra-time win over Clare suggests a re-match in next month’s All-Ireland final, although we said the same of Limerick/Waterford last month. In one sense, Sunday resembled Saturday’s Leinster Hurling Final, as players sought space in a frantic physical environment. But the Munster final was infinitely better.

Limerick had to on top form. They made more errors than usual. But the majority were forced by Clare’s incredible tenacity. Referee John Keenan ‘let the game flow’ to just the right extent. The spectacle benefited. And the attendant rainstorm was forgotten…by TV viewers, anyway.

Limerick full-forward Seamus Flanagan had an early goal chance, but had no hurl. He kicked it with the skill of a Kilkenny footballer. Kilkenny don’t have a senior football team. He missed. Then, with the score four-each, Clare’s Tony Kelly dispossessed Gearoid Hegarty, ran 50 yards up the wing like a demented egg-and-spoon racer and pinged the ball over from 35 yards. Because of course he did.

Hegarty got revenge. Clare were three-up on 27 minutes when he flicked the ball over Diarmuid Ryan, caught it on the other side and drilled it low to the net (think Paul Gascoigne, England/Scotland, Euro ‘96). Almost as stunning was Kelly missing an easy chance to restore Clare’s lead. The umpires called for ’Hawkeye’ technology, possibly disbelieving what they’d seen. And even the machines were disbelieving, taking ages to confirm the anti-miracle.

Kelly would, legendarily, atone. But his unsuspected profligacy was contagious, the sides sharing six early-second-half wides. But after Limerick’s Aaron Gillane missed an easy free, ‘normal’ service resumed after Limerick full-back Mike Casey flung himself in front of Shane O’Donnell’s goalbound strike. And the sides frantically swapped leads before entering stoppage-time all-square.

Ordinarily, Declan Hannan’s towering 90-yard point would have been an appropriately dramatic winner. Clare did win a last-second line-ball near the corner flag. And scores from hurling’s throw-in equivalent are far more frequent than once they were. But no-one scores them from…there. Not with the last puck of a Munster Final. Tony Kelly did. Because of course he did.

Then, RTE pundit Shane Dowling noted, matter-of-factly, the teams “sprinted down the tunnel, pucked the heads off each other and got ready for extra-time.” Which Limerick largely edged thanks to their now traditional strength from the bench. And, ultimately, Hegarty’s goal was the difference.

“What an absolute game,” Duignan concluded. Events left him short of breath AND grammar. But you knew what he meant.

After Kilkenny’s powerful second-half display to hammer Dublin in the Leinster round-robins, their manager Brian Cody was asked if he’d changed tactics at half-time. “No,” he admitted. “We just worked harder.” This surprised no-one. Cody has never been tactically renowned. And as Kilkenny dominated hurling’s 21st-century landscape, until 2015, this was a source of wonder. Since 2015, less so. Last weekend, after Kilkenny’s third consecutive Leinster final victory, we were wondering again.

Galway manager Henry Shefflin was motionless and speechless for some moments after the final whistle, possibly wondering what might/should have been. Galway played most of the first-half hurling but ended it two points down. From such positions in their glory years, Kilkenny would have inched un-noticed to an unassailable lead in the third quarter. In these less glorious years, it simply took a while longer.

Within the space of two early first-half minutes, Galway’s Joseph Cooney and Brian Concannon’s touch let them down with goals for the taking. The perma-impressive Conor Whelan grabbed the best first-quarter scores but Kilkenny led by up to four before the game livened up in the wrong manner, 11 minutes before half-time, when Galway’s Cianan Fahy stamped on a grounded Richie Reid.

“His eyes are…he’s looking down on Richie Reid there,” noted RTE pundit Jackie Tyrell, whose ‘combative’ playing days fashioned familiarity with such situations. “Can you see where his eyes are?” presenter Joanne Cantwell asked. Well…no. But you could see his effing foot land on Reid’s arm if you’d spent less effing time manufacturing ‘balance.’ Er…anyway, Fahy got away with his wilful misinterpretation of ‘front-foot hurling.’ And then, of course, got Galway’s next score.

“Hawkeye data” was “unavailable” when Kilkenny’s TJ Reid appeared to miss a free moments later. But Hawkeye wasn’t needed again, the last link to Kilkenny’s glory days nailing every subsequent shot. Galway were kept at bay in a second half in which the players worked hard and viewers worked harder before late Kilkenny fluency left them winning by five. Even the managers’ post-match handshake was a bit dull. It took ages, after Shefflin’s full-time paralysis. It was perfunctory. And, as the sides cannot meet in the All-Ireland semi-final Kilkenny have reached, it probably won’t be repeated until 2023.

Very unlike the game it curtain-raised, the Joe McDonagh Cup final was fabulous, Antrim beating Kerry in a 73-point thriller, compellingly AND controversially, despite leading by either side of 11 points almost throughout the middle third of the game. Kerry netted three fine final-quarter goals, the last with the last puck of the game, which left them a point behind. This point was arguably Conal Cunning’s successful 72nd-minute free for a “foul” on Daniel McKernan who clearly stumbled unaided. As the joke goes, the referee was well-placed to see the incident, as he was closer to it than any Kerry players.

Antrim/Cork and Kerry/Wexford are this Saturday’s All-Ireland preliminary quarter-finals (both 2pm, GAAGO). Wexford drew at 2021 McDonagh winners Westmeath last month and Cork may struggle on their early Munster form. But, despite their home advantage, the McDonaghs are clear outsiders. In fact, the GAA have them written off, as neither were represented in the official publicity photoshoot for the All-Ireland series, which involved one kitted-out player from each of the other six teams, including Cork and Wexford. Very disrespectful.

The weekend’s football highlight was Armagh’s joyous dethroning of All-Ireland champions Tyrone. Tyrone opened the scoring with Conor McKenna’s third-minute goal, from a rebound which was partly due to Armagh selecting former forward Ethan Rafferty in goal. Rafferty would soon atone, though. And Armagh soon recovered. Rush goalie Rafferty’s first point and lively joint-captain Aidan Nugent’s goal helped Armagh to six of the next seven scores. Yet they were only a point up at half-time. “Armagh throwing this away. Dumb fouls. Poor kick passing. Poor hand passing,” tweeted ex-RTE pundit and concerned Tyrone un-fan Joe Brolly. “Should be six or seven ahead.”

Two early second-half Armagh points eased his concerns, only for them to return after Tyrone scored the only point in the 10 minutes the incorrectly black-carded Richie Donnelly sat out. Tyrone’s sudden susceptibility to injury during these ten minutes was trademark cynicism. Hence Brolly being far from the only Tyrone un-fan.

But Rafferty had the perfect response to Donnelly’s return, flying upfield to point again. leaving the crowd roaring louder than 16,000 people should. Armagh’s only subsequent worry was Connaire Mackin being stretchered off with a serious-looking head or neck injury. Fortunately, it was ‘only’ concussion. And, satisfyingly, their last two points came in the stoppage-time added partly for Tyrone’s ‘injuries.’

Defending All-Ireland titles is always difficult. Tyrone won three between 2003 and 2008, but never two-in-a-row (winning their first final against then-defending champions…Armagh). Nonetheless, this title defence was putrid. And therefore popular.

Mayo have well-trodden the qualifier route to the All-Ireland series. And they’re treading it again, having escaped Monaghan’s dour, defensive clutches by four points on Saturday. Yet they needed referee Barry Cassidy to deny Monaghan a nailed-on penalty, which could have drawn them level with three minutes’ stoppage-time left.

Monaghan looked old. Especially long-time talisman Conor McManus, whose lazily outstretched leg merited a seventh-minute black card when Mayo’s Aidan O’Shea fell over it. Mullet-headed Monaghan forward Gary Mohan had landed two early points. Then Mayo dominated to lead by five when McManus returned. However, McManus’s heir-apparent (heir-obvious?) Jack McCarron landed three points, one an astonishing outside-of-the-foot effort, to help reduce the half-time deficit to three.

Mayo received punditry plaudits for their clinical first-half finishing. But both sides got the yips after half-time, mustering three points between them in 22 second-half minutes, until veteran full-back Lee Keegan got an acre to himself to restore Mayo’s three-point lead.

They were still three-up on 73 minutes, when Keegan briefly grabbed Conor Leonard’s waist before felling him in a tangle of legs, and Cassidy thought, “nah, free-out.” Sky Sports pundit, legendary ex-forward Peter Canavan, said he would, and Leonard should, have deployed dark arts to highlight the foul. But Leonard couldn’t deploy anything in Keegan’s clutches, which was rather the point. “We were robbed,” Monaghan manager Seamus ‘Banty’ McEnaney said in his post-match interview, correctly. Yet Mayo would likely have prevailed in extra-time and deserved the win.

Cork’s 2-12 to 2-8 win over Louth was bilge, a late goal each part-masking its paucity of ambition and quality, which GAAGO commentator Will Downing’s misplaced enthusiasm only emphasised. Cork fans were ‘ole-ing’ near the end, an impressive display of collective irony as their team handpassed aimlessly in the middle third. And the (sole) camera angle focused on the three massive empty sides of Pairc Ui Chaoimh, letting everyone there deny that they were. Which they should. File under “when’s the hurling on?”

Clare edged past Meath by two points. GAAGO commentator Mike Finnerty rightly foretold a game “as tight as it will be tense.” Clare squandered a fine first-half start and a second-half penalty. And Meath led shortly after Conor McGill netted their 40th-minute spot-kick. Meath keeper Harry Hogan saved David Tubridy’s penalty and denied Keelan Sexton with a save-of-any-season contender. But Sexton pointed the resultant 45 to help seal victory. Way better than Cork/Louth. Nonetheless, file under “seriously, when’s the hurling on?”

These qualifier winners meet the beaten provincial finalists in the ‘Round 2 qualifiers.’ Preliminary quarter-finals, effectively, though the GAA don’t agree. The ties are Roscommon/Clare, Mayo/Kildare, Cork/Limerick and Armagh/Donegal, the first two on Sky Sports Arena, 3.45 and 6pm Saturday; the others on RTE/GAAGO, 1.30 and 4pm Sunday. All at Croke Park. The smart money is on the first-named teams. But only just.

Sligo have taken the scenic route to football’s second-tier Tailteann Cup semi-finals. They beat London after extra-time in round one. And on Sunday, they edged neighbours Leitrim on penalties, both games exactly what the Cup was designed to produce. Offaly and Cavan had easier wins over New York and Fermanagh. While Westmeath beat Carlow in a semi score-fest, Carlow ‘resplendent’ in red, yellow and green shirts, red shorts and green socks, which looked like a terrific idea to raise awareness of LGBTQ issues. The semis are Cavan/Sligo and Offaly/Westmeath. It remains Cavan’s Cup to lose.