GAA Championships 2022, week twelve: provincial champions prevail

by | Jul 9, 2022

So, after the qualifiers and preliminary quarter-finals, only the six provincial champions (four football, two hurling) remain in this year’s championship.

Many viewed Armagh footballers as likely buckers of that trend, but they acted like buckers in defeat to Galway. Likewise Clare hurlers, who played like…well… While no-one viewed Galway hurlers as trend-buckers. Yet they nearly bucked things right up. Predictions of one tight hurling semi-final and one cakewalk came true, but predictors got the games wrong. Meanwhile, Tipperary rose from the dead, buried and memorial service to win a heartbreaking All-Ireland minor hurling final.

It is difficult to comprehend how atrocious Clare were last Saturday. Kilkenny were often exceptional. But Clare contributed considerably to their 12-point trimming. Kilkenny’s star, though neither Sky nor RTE’s man-of-the-match, was corner-back Mikey Butler. Especially as he played while moving house, to live rent-free inside the head of Clare talisman Tony Kelly. Kelly was off-beam from frees and didn’t score from open play, largely because the pervasive Butler gave him nothing ‘open’ to play in.

Shane O’Donnell’s classy fifth-minute point, beautifully rescued from a handling error, suggested business as expected. But it wasn’t for long. Kilkenny’s big names all produced big first-halves. TJ Reid’s wonderful catch and lay-off for Adrian Mullen’s stylish point. Eoin Cody’s shimmy past two tackles and shot just inside the post, which Hawkeye might have felt like a killjoy for disallowing. Full-back Hugh Lawlor’s leap into a Dublin Airport flight-path to catch a high ball into the nominal danger area. Etc…

Cody nearly netted on 32 minutes, Clare keeper Eibhear Quilligan saving superbly after another stellar TJ catch and offload to Cody. But Billy Ryan pointed the loose ball. And, in what might have been a turning point had Kilkenny not already led by 11, Peter Duggan had two goalbound efforts blocked down, 36 seconds before the previously quiet and soon-subbed Mossie Keoghan netted at the other end. Clare hit 11 first-half wides to Kilkenny’s *checks notes* one, and had *checks notes in disbelief* had one more scoring chance than Kilkenny…in a half they lost by *notes etc* FOURTEEN points.

There were second-half flickers for Clare, between occasional tests of the theory that they couldn’t play any worse than they did in the first half. Kelly hit the post with a scoreable early free, which was an improvement of sorts, and Clare reduced the lead to 12 two minutes after the restart, before comeback hopes dissolved. Ryan fizzed a goal chance narrowly over. And a minute later, Cian Kelly netted when given a postcode’s worth of space by Clare’s defensive disfunction, after a wonder catch by Keoghan’s replacement Walter Walsh. Forty-three minutes gone and the insurance score landed.

“Game management” was how Sky pundit and Kilkenny corner-back legend JJ Delaney excused a dull final quarter. Clare were just ten behind after introducing the lively Shane Meehan. They got no closer, though. O’Donnell, Clare’s only vaguely functioning forward, overcarried with a score for the taking deep inside Kilkenny’s half, from where TJ nonetheless pointed the free. And they kept pinging high balls yards over Meehan’s, and everyone else’s, head, upping their wide tally to a monstrous 24 and metaphorically exploding Sky co-commentator Anthony Nash’s head.

Kilkenny keeper Eoin Murphy magnificently denied David Fitzgerald, another of Clare’s less woeful performers. But, inevitably, TJ scored again 12 seconds later, a fine point from play to cap his best performance of a season he started as out-of-form as Tony Kelly finished it. And the winning margin was about right. Although, as Sky pundit and 1990s Clare star Jamesie O’Connor noted, with tears in his voice, if Clare had scored “half those wides” they’d have been in the game.

Similar could have been said about Galway’s three-point loss to Limerick, although Galway were the opposite of atrocious, exceeding expectations as much as Clare fell short of theirs. The final points tallies (27-24) replicated the sides’ 2020 semi-final. But that was a different, crowdless, Covid-restricted day.

Celebrities abounded in Sunday’s crowd. The funny-hatted Limerick-shirted man chatting to stewards in Croke Park’s concourse pre-match was Hollywood star Bill Murray (a guest of Limerick businessman, and Alex Ferguson pal, JP McManus). And after half-time, the cameras noticed a blue-and-yellow-shirted ‘character.’ “That’s a Clare shirt,” said my Kilkenny mate, who’d watched the semi-finals at my house, and had earlier spotted a lone Kilkenny top. “Fell asleep last night and no-one noticed,” we presumed of the Kilkenny man. “No, that’s Paddy Joe,” I assured my mate of the blue-and-yellow fella, as Roscommon superfan Paddy Joe Burke set GAA twitter ablaze by celebrating Galway’s goal.

On the field, Aaron Gillane’s early point from tight to the Hogan Stand sideline suggested business as expected. Limerick led 0-6 to 0-1 after eight minutes of their best hurling. Then the West awoke, Galway counter-intuitively inspired by Conor Cooney dropping a horribly mishit free metres short from close range. Limerick giant Gearoid Hegarty’s superscore was surrounded by quality Galway scores and a video-dictionary definition of action-packed ensued.

One Galway point was disallowed by Hawkeye, two minutes and a Limerick point after it was scored (good job that sequence of events didn’t surround a final whistle). Midfielder Tom Monaghan landed points from all over Dublin. Star forward Conor Whelan barely touched the ball until his 24th-minute point; though even that was, timeously, hawk-eyed out of history. Barry Nash pointed from miles out after a bout of Limerick tiki-taka. And Cathal Mannion’s double had Galway a point behind on the half-hour. But Gillane finished the half as he began it, with a fine over-the-shoulder number, Limerick finishing the half as they began it, powering to a four-point interval lead. Fabulous stuff.

And a frantic and dramatic second half exploded two minutes in when Galway’s Brian Concannon caught David Burke’s high ball to the edge of the square, turned and lashed it into the roof of the net, to level matters. And for the next 35 minutes, there was never more than a point in it. Tensions rose on the sideline, Galway manager Henry Shefflin and Limerick coach Paul Kinnerk seeing yellows for a vigorous exchange of views. While Limerick looked to their bench, as only Diarmuid Byrnes’ long-range frees kept them in touch. Such changes have inspired many recent Limerick wins. But these had an aura of desperation.

They only impacted late on, when Galway’s shooting went so awry that even Monaghan missed one. Galway didn’t score after the 66th minute. And Limerick finally found the composure of champions, to the delight of the Buster Bloodvessel tribute act continually picked out by the TV cameras (one for the 1980s ska fans, there).

This composure was epitomised by three key incidents. Sub David Reidy’s coolly-taken 68th-minute point, after Limerick withstood some ferocious Galway tackling. Relatively diminutive full-back Sean Finn casually catching a rebound off Cooney’s helmet as if he was picking an apple off a tree. And centre-forward Kyle Hayes racing back to catch Galway’s last launch into the square, the final whistle sounding as Hayes sped clear.

Hayes arguably got away with standing on a prone Monaghan during a 53rd-minute tussle for possession, though his demeanour suggested he’d not meant it. And Limerick arguably got away with poor shows from key players (“the rhythm just wasn’t quite 110% today,” arithmetically-confused Limerick supremo John Kiely said afterwards). True champions often do, though. And Limerick are unarguably that. But hurling’s arguably truest-ever champion, Kilkenny boss Brian Cody, might not let them get away with anything on 17th July.

Offaly GAA’s recent resurgence has been heart-warming. Their under-20 footballers thrillingly won the 2021 All-Ireland title, photogenically cheered on by celebrity and genuine fan, title-winning golfer Shane Lowry (whose father Brendan was an All-Ireland football title-winner in 1982). This year, their minor (under-17) hurlers reached the All-Ireland final for the first time since 1989. And with five minutes left in said final last Sunday, their lively side, inspired by thin-as-a-rake corner forward Adam Screeney (correct spelling) deservedly led by six-points and one 17-year-old over Tipperary.

The sending-off, nine minutes from time, was weird. Offaly’s Cathal Robinson was clean through when, as he set to shoot, a flying hurl skulled him, thrown from a distance by Tipp’s Damien Corbett. A discombobulated Robinson’s shot was saved. But while ref Shane Hynes asked Corbett to take his hurl and go, he only awarded a free, as Robinson was brained outside the penalty area. Had Robinson been hauled to the ground on the same spot, Hynes could have given a penalty and black-carded Corbett. But on flying hurls and craniums, the rules are silent. So, in a very loophole-y manner, Hynes was right. This time.

Counter-intuitively, the incident galvanised Tipp, as the significance of a win appeared to dawn on Offaly. And they were only two-up with 33 seconds’ stoppage-time left, after giving away comfortable possession and being unlucky that the ball fell Tipp’s way after two subsequent pieces of great defending. Then the REAL controversy kicked in.

With five seconds left, Offaly’s Neil Furlong was felled, 35 metres from his own goal, as glory beckoned if he whacked the ball downfield. Hynes deemed half-time sub Darragh McCarthy’s tackle to be a fair shoulder-charge, which only looked possible from the TV pictures if McCarthy had been wearing the width of shoulder-pad last seen in 1980s US TV soap opera Dynasty.

In a seemingly rehearsed move, Paddy Phelan floated the free to the edge of the square, as Tipp players took runs-up to meet it. That gave them the jump on Offaly’s static defence. Paddy McCormack reached highest to bat the ball into the net. Tipp regained possession from the resultant puck-out. Hynes blew for time. And remarkable terrace scenes ensued, Tipp fans at the back leaping about in all directions, while Offaly fans stood disbelievingly motionless, almost all with their hands on their heads.

Most observers outside Tipperary were screaming injustice(s). Hynes saw the Furlong incident head on, close-up, so should have known the nature of any contact. Yet even former inter-county referees were convinced he was wrong, Brian Gavin starting one paragraph of his analysis with “If Shane was looking at the foul from a different angle…” Mind you, Gavin is from Offaly.

The Offaly youngsters were lauded at a “homecoming event” on Monday night as if they’d won (“a team that has lifted a county,” the flyers said). They will hopefully learn game management skills from the experience, and will surely one day look back on it all with some fondness. Just not for a bit.

A football weekend beckons. The second-tier Tailteann Cup final, Cavan/Westmeath (3pm), curtain-raises Saturday’s Derry/Galway All-Ireland semi-final (5.30pm) on GAAGO and Sky Sports Arena (SSA) respectively in Britain. The Dublin/Kerry All-Ireland semi starts at 3.30pm Sunday, on SSA in the UK. The winners? Cavan, Derry and…coin-toss. Expect penalties.