GAA Championships 2022, Week Five: Rebels Rise at Last

by | May 21, 2022

Someone must have paid the ransom to whoever kidnapped Cork’s hurlers last month, as the real Rebels finally made their 2022 championship debuts in Waterford on Sunday.

Cork’s six-point win made Clare and Limerick Munster finalists if they drew their match in Clare two hours later. They did, though if they fixed it, they hid it epically. But despite Cork’s triumph, the weekend’s major upset was in Leinster on Saturday evening, where Wexford drew with ‘minnows’ Westmeath, which overshadowed Derry’s ordinarily headline-grabbing Ulster football semi-final win over Monaghan. That, though, remained the football weekend’s headline-grabber, with the Leinster and Munster semis all following their scripts.

Quoting 18th-century hurling fan Samuel Johnson, former RTE pundit Ger Loughnane said of Tipperary’s comeback, against Waterford, in the 2018 Munster championship: “death concentrates the mind wonderfully.” And Cork brought some very concentrated minds to Walsh Park. From the start, Cork were more aggressive and committed than in their two losses. And despite only being a point-up at half-time after playing with a wind which made most of Walsh Park a scoring zone, they powered ahead after it, thanks to neck-bulging intensity from Seamus Harnedy. And excellent substitutions from manager Kieran Kingston.

Half-back Tim O’Mahony was a late exclusion from the starting line-up. Manager’s son Shane was also a sub. And their introductions, O’Mahony as a half-forward, proved game-changing, with Cork’s 52nd-minute goal, Junction One on their motorway to victory, a substitutes’ creation. O’Mahony’s deft handpass began the move, before Alan Connolly netted Kingston’s fabulous assist.

Waterford’s comeback hopes were squished by on-form Austin Gleeson’s second yellow card, after one of those off-the-ball altercations seemingly set-up for the purpose. Yet Cork were winning anyway. Harnedy threatened the world high-jump record in celebrating his brilliant solo point to close the scoring, which led RTE co-commentator Brendan Cummins to suggest: “He’s angry.” Well…maybe, after the criticism Cork got in recent weeks. But some Cork fans might be angry themselves that a team so good were previously so bad. Still, Tipp/Cork now matters, beyond ancient rivalry.

Clare/Limerick only mattered to Limerick for that reason. And Limerick boss John Kiely made enough changes to leave people guessing who, if anyone, was dropped for bar-based indiscipline. Nonetheless, both sides threw kitchen sinks about the place, during a stunning first-half and dramatic second half.

Limerick were missing injured star Cian Lynch. So ‘resting’ Aaron Gillane depleted their scoring power. Meanwhile, Tony Kelly landed TWO-THIRDS of Clare’s 24 points. He had 16 points after 44 minutes, one behind the entire Limerick team at that stage. Remarkably, he didn’t score again. Yet the game appeared to turn Clare’s way on 64 minutes when Limerick’s brilliant-but-belligerent Gearoid Hegarty received a second yellow card. Clare led in stoppage-time. Then Diarmaid Byrnes’ ice-in-the-veins last-gasp free secured the mutually-beneficial draw.

Hegarty was sanctioned for two dangerous swings of the hurley, which actually amounted to five-eighths of fcuk-all. The second incident included a pig’s-worth of ham acting from Clare sub Aaron Fitzgerald. And the sense that players “such as” Hegarty are easier booked for such things only grew when RTE pundit Donal Og Cusack claimed he “asked for it.” Presenter Joanne Cantwell suggested “language like that” got “into officials’ heads” with Hegarty and Limerick suffering as a result. And, for once, her infuriating devil’s advocacy schtick was appropriate. “What do you want me to do?” Cusack whimpered. Not state that Hegarty “asked for it,” when he…erm…didn’t, perhaps?

Having threatened to do so for no minutes against Galway but for 50 minutes against Kilkenny and 60 minutes against Dublin, Westmeath finally threw some Leinster cats among Leinster’s proverbial pigeons for all 70+ minutes against Wexford.

Keeper Mark Fanning had been a focal point for his penalty scores and misses in previous Wexford games. In Westmeath, his double case of the dropsies cost them a point, a place in the Leinster final and, very probably, their continuing place in the All-Ireland championship. No biggies, then. Fanning’s reputational collapse was the one shame here. Otherwise, the result was marvellous for Westmeath, and hurling generally.

Wexford led almost throughout. But every time they threatened to pull away, Westmeath pulled them back. Wexford were soon five-up only for Westmeath’s Niall Mitchell to find the net via the hole in Fanning’s gloves with an underhit point attempt. And they combined the concession of scorable frees with the butchering of scorable chances to keep Westmeath hopes alive.

Still, they were three points and a man up, in stoppage time, after Westmeath’s Davy Glennon received his second caution, on 66 minutes. But Fanning fumbled sub Kevin Regan’s high ball and fellow sub Derek McNicholas was there to write the headlines. And Wexford only used the remaining seconds to take their tally of second-half wides to a shameful 14.

Kilkenny’s struggles continued in a scratchy first half in Dublin. Key players TJ Reid and Eoin Cody, struggled, as did Adrian Mullen, despite scoring on six (SIX!) seconds. In complete contrast, Dublin’s Donal Burke could barely miss. Yet Kilkenny were three-up at half-time, after some fine points by championship newcomer Cian Kenny and a fine 28th-minute goal from ‘Mossie’ Keoghan (real first name Martin, but not anxious to be called ‘Martin Keown’). Then the key men rediscovered their keys, with Reid’s delightfully deft 55th-minute goal especially eye-catching, as Dublin collapsed to a 17-point defeat.

Galway hammered Laois by 22 points. So Dublin winning in Salthill on Saturday seems unlikely. Still, Leinster’s top four all remain in contention for…something. Galway/Kilkenny looks the likely final, with Dublin favourites for a preliminary quarter-final. Wexford winning and Dublin avoiding defeat would eliminate Kilkenny entirely. But if that happens, I’ll eat my hat AND yours. Meanwhile, Laois must beat Westmeath to send Westmeath into a relegation play-off. I’ll be chapeau-consuming again if they do.

In Munster, Waterford, Cork AND Tipp could yet finish on two points (trailed, if hardly forecast, here last week). Indeed, you’d currently fancy Clare to beat Waterford, while Tipp’s home advantage against Cork could be tie-breaking. However, Clare are Munster finalists regardless, so may rest players. If Waterford win, Tipp will be out, even if they beat Cork. But if Cork win, Waterford will be out, even if they beat Clare, as points-ties between two teams are broken by head-to-head records.

And a relegation play-off remains possible, if Kerry win the second-tier Joe McDonagh Cup. They are long-odds against doing so…and would subsequently get steamrollered. But mischievous fans might suggest that a Cork/Kerry hurling match would currently be as competitive as its football equivalent.

You could imagine the comic-book speech bubbles in the crowd as Derry’s keeper Odhran Lynch hurtled down the pitch, 24 minutes into the Ulster semi-final with Monaghan. “What’s the youngster doing?” the text would have read, as Lynch crossed the halfway-line, before pinging the ball 60 yards downfield. Niall Toner spectacularly caught the pass, over the head of his marker, and found Benny Heron, who found the net.

The outstanding Gareth McKinless had parted Monaghan’s defence to bullet home Derry’s first goal, on 12 minutes. Heron’s score put Derry eight points clear. And though Monaghan cut the gap to three in a stirring third quarter, Derry timed their third goal to perfection and determinedly kept out 2021’s beaten Ulster finalists.

For all their blanket, often 15-man defending, Derry are the story of this football championship. That their counter-attacking elan resembles Donegal’s game-changing route to All-Ireland glory in 2012 is no co-incidence. Derry’s boss now, Rory Gallagher, was Donegal’s assistant manager then. When he became Donegal, then Fermanagh, boss, his teams were roundly and rightly criticised for being boring. His part-aggressive, part puppy-dog touchline joy at Derry’s goals on Sunday suggest a man out to prove his critics wrong. Except they weren’t. Derry have just got the attack/defence balance right.

Sunday was terrific, though not as sensational as BBC Northern Ireland co-commentator Martin Clarke frequently suggested. Monaghan didn’t score for 13 minutes (which even Clarke had to euphemise as “absorbing”), and were outplayed on the way to a seven-point half-time deficit. They outscored Derry 0-5 to 0-1 after half-time. But Derry had an Emmett Bradley-shaped answer to their questions, the sub powering 70 yards down the wing to land a magnificent point. On 61 minutes, the ubiquitous Conor Glass set-up Heron’s second goal. And Derry wrapped their own goal in a blanket until full-time.

Derry are now many peoples’ favourites to beat Donegal in the Ulster final. But RTE pundit Colm O’Rourke suggested that their 12 points against Monaghan “would not be enough to win big games,” although it was. “I’d prefer to see them get 1-18 rather than 3-12,” he added, although they scored…1-18 to beat Tyrone. Weird.

Kildare established themselves as Dublin’s biggest challenge in Leinster, with an attacking masterclass against Westmeath, and disestablished that position by conceding 2-15. Westmeath started and finished strongly, goaling through Ronan O’Toole after 12 seconds and landing five late points. The middle bit was the problem, though.

After O’Toole’s goal, Kildare fashioned a nine-point turnaround in 33 minutes, Johnny Hyland’s eighth-minute goal giving them a lead they kept. But, much as their hurlers did, Westmeath stirred themselves when the game looked to be leaving them, half-back Ronan Wallace creating a tap-in for fellow half-back Jamie Gonoud, which momentarily left two between the sides.

Kildare stretched their interval lead to four, and were seven-up on 54 minutes. But there was as much space on the Croke Park pitch as there was in the stands (the Dublin fans in the half-full stadium largely emerging just before their own game, as they do). And Westmeath were left complaining about insufficient stoppage-time as they reduced the final deficit to three.

Dublin’s evisceration of Meath said much about Meath. But they looked more like the six-in-a-row team than at any stage last year, when taking a 1-17 to 0-5 interval lead. Though if Jordan Morris had converted an early goal chance…wait…nah…

Meath ‘won’ the second half. But their two sendings-off were the ‘highlights.’ Jack Flynn elbowed Jonny Cooper in the jaw for no discernible reason, the still-standing Cooper’s expression suggesting that Flynn needed to send himself off, sharpish. Then Morris strolled 25 yards to the touchline to push Dublin’s Lee Gannon over, a dismissal which Meath manager Andy McEntee called “laughable.” It was. Just not in the way he meant.

And finally…Limerick beat Tipperary by six points in Saturday’s Munster football semi-final, continuing their upward curve in recent years. It’s the first time Limerick have made both provincial deciders since 1934. Kerry await in the final. Good luck, lads.

All four hurling games this weekend mean something. So, Sky Sports Arena has Kilkenny/Wexford at 6pm on Saturday, while GAAGO has Galway/Dublin. RTE1, RTE2 and GAAGO have Munster’s Sunday 4pm denouement covered. And GAAGO have Wexford/Offaly, in football’s second-tier Tailteann Cup competition, 2pm Sunday.