GAA Championships, week ten: hurling’s final four & a feast of football

by | Jun 25, 2022

As usual in recent years, Munster’s Hurling Championship this year was better than Leinster’s. Yet with ten minutes of normal time left in the second of Saturday’s two quarter-finals, the odds were very short on hurling’s final four containing three Leinster teams.

Galway had already joined Kilkenny in that four, having led from 16 seconds-after-the-start-to-finish against Cork. And Wexford had the momentum AND a six-point lead against Clare late in their, until that point, abnormal game. Then, Clare remembered that they were much better than Wexford. And normal service was thrillingly renewed.

Both quarter-finals followed similar patterns. Wretched first halves. Much better, if not quite top-quality, second halves. Big goalkeeping errors. Pulsating finishes of sorts. And early, EARLY goals.

Galway found the Cork net after 16 seconds, when a speculative 75-yard lob goalwards by the corner-back known in GAA circles as THE Jack Grealish slipped through Cork keeper Patrick Collins’ fingers. They stayed ahead largely because Cork shot five wides in the first ten minutes. On 18 minutes, Galway’s star forward Conor Whelan netted from a very tight angle, helped by his marker Sean O’Donoghue, who decided that, when defending a HIGH ball into Whelan, “the air” was NOT the first place to look for it.

Cork could have been seven points down at half-time, having played most of the little quality hurling on view. Then the man known in GAA circles as THE Robert Downey blocked Conor Cooney’s straightforward free to provide the first hints of things going Cork’s way. And they were only five behind at half-time, which became two, three minutes after it, when the maddeningly inconsistent Shane Kingston’s fabulous pick-up and quick turn left a rake of defenders and attackers in his wake before he found the net.

Cork’s wastefulness was part-solved by the half-time introduction of 34-years-young talisman Pat Horgan, not an ideal man for a Cork side tactically reliant on pace but having him sat on his arse for 35 minutes was still a crime against hurling. Accuracy largely restored, the game sprang into something like the life expected of it.

Galway cancelled out Kingston’s goal with three quick points, including another classic from the single-gloved Whelan. And their lead yo-yoed between one and four for the rest of the half. And another Cork sub, long-time absentee Alan Cadogan, landed three quick points of his own. But late events fell Galway’s way.

On 63 minutes, Galway’s Daithi Burke hit Cork’s goalbound Seamus Harnedy so hard that MY shoulder popped out just watching it on the telly. And that was the point. It was red-card offence if Burke got it wrong. But shoulder-charges within playing distance of the ball are legal, however high they register on the Richter scale. Then Horgan and Cadogan both struck the post in stoppage-time. Cork landed the final three points to trail by one. But THE Jack Grealish fabulously caught a late high ball. And the clock beat them.

Galway now face Limerick. And the post-match interview cliché “we’ll have to improve to get anything out of that match” rings very true. Although if they can get good service into Whelan…and Limerick have an off-day, or an ill-disciplined one, or…blimey, I’m talking myself out of this theory. Cork merited as much genuine sympathy as non-Cork people can find in their hearts. Just stop leaving Horgan on the bench.

You knew something was off its axis when Clare’s mercurial Tony Kelly missed an easy early free against Wexford. And the second coming would only have been a surprise after he missed a third within six minutes because many would have expected Kelly himself to descend from the skies.

Wexford were a goal up on 28 seconds after Jack O’Connor ran a lane through Clare’s defence. And Clare looked chaotic. Their preparation was disrupted by a too-long saga over the suspensions of defender Rory Hayes and forward Peter Duggan, both named on the bench after their sanctions were quashed, both in the starting line-up very late on. And Wexford were inches from netting again on four minutes when Conor McDonald leapt on a mistake by a discombobulated Hayes and fired across goal. An uninjured-looking Hayes was replaced on nine minutes, a merciful relief for an ordinarily fine player.

Not that Clare’s fortunes improved much. Wexford were dealt a huge blow when forward Rory O’Connor limped off on 14 minutes. And Clare wiped out their early four-point deficit while Wexford regrouped, Kelly landing a Kelly-esque point from play to return a stetch of normality to proceedings. Yet Clare needed two late points to go into half-time level. And they were a little fortunate to be level on players after influential midfielder Davy Fitzgerald saw yellow for the red-card offence of “interference with a helmet” (no jokes, please).

Both sides improved immeasurably after the break. And the shock was on when Wexford goaled twice between minutes 47 and 50. The first goal went from keeper Mark Fanning’s long-range free past Lee Chin’s waving hurley into the net via distracted Clare keeper Eibhear Quilligan, accompanied by a ‘they think it’s all over…it is now’ moment from RTE commentator Ger Canning: “Lob it dangerously right in there, and anything could happen…and DOES!” Two minutes later, Clare’s Ian Galvin crashed a shot against the crossbar. And TWENTY-ONE seconds after that, Chin slammed home after Wexford lobbed it dangerously right in there again, and Quilligan and co panicked again.

Wexford now led by five, which became six with ten minutes of normal time left in this abnormal encounter. But a switch had been flicked. Clare subs Aron Shanagher and teen sensation Shane Meehan (remember the name etc…) had immediate scoreboard impacts and within eight minutes, Clare had an unanswered 1-6 on the board, Fanning joining the keepers horror show, catching a ball, unlike Collins and Quilligan, but leaving it behind him as he advanced downfield, letting Shanagher swing it into the net.

But after Clare went three-up entering stoppage time, Chin turned on the 20-metre line and was hauled down as he headed goalwards. The telly missed it. But RTE analyst Michael Duignan didn’t, asking “Should that not be a penalty and a black card?” TV replays suggested “yep,” as that is the sanction for denying a goalscoring opportunity inside the 20-metre line. RTE studio pundits Joe Canning and (Clare’s) Davy Fitzgerald said “nope,” as two Clare players had got back; the fact that this was because Chin was HAULED…TO…THE…GROUND momentarily escaping them.

Chin pointed the free that WAS given, some yards behind and wide of where the foul happened, as if the ref had realised his error and was anxious to cover it…some might say. Not me, of course. Oh no. But Wexford’s chance was gone. And Kelly’s final contribution could not have been in greater contrast to his first, as he caught a ball while falling onto his back, bounced up again like he was wearing a Zebedee costume all wrong, and casually split the posts from 50 yards.

Clare outscoring Wexford 1-9 to 0-2 in the last 17 minutes’ playing time has re-established them as All-Ireland title second-favourites. And they surely won’t play as badly again as they did for 59 minutes here. And Wexford could argue that they were close to an All-Ireland semi-final. They probably shouldn’t though, given their struggles over most of their season.

Cavan/Westmeath will be the 9th July Tailteann Cup final. The balls.ie website tweeted “that game between Cavan and Sligo should have had at least 350 goals.” And Sligo should probably have had about 307 of them. The Westmeath/Offaly semi could have had almost as many goals. And Westmeath…307…etc…

Cavan hit six early unanswered points. Yet after Paddy O’Connor’s 20th-minute penalty for Sligo, there was only two between the sides. Luke Towey was actually fouled strategically just outside the area. But no harm if the ref awarded the spot-kick for cynicism,. And Cavan goalie Raymond Galligan ran, not dived, RAN towards his left-hand post so early that it looked like a disapproving comment on that cynicism.

There were goal chances galore until half-time. O’Connor thumped the Cavan crossbar. Mikey Gordon’s close-range shot was cleared off the line by fast-retreating Cavan defender Oisin Kiernan. And Sligo could have led at the break, as they were powered forward by RTE pundit Pat Spillane’s grandson-looking namesake son. That said, Sligo keeper Aidan Devaney smothered Gearoid McKiernan’s stoppage-time shot, to add to his early save from James Smith.

Sligo had a firm second-half breeze behind them AND Niall Murphy up front. Murphy was only fit enough to be a sub but soon asked the ‘what if he’d been on from the start?’ questions. Cavan had two more goal chances because, by now, of course they did. Yet O’Connor regularly updated his ‘could have had xx goals by now’ stat. On 44 minutes he blazed wide when Murphy was better-placed. And on 55 minutes, his 94th goalbound shot was hacked off the line by that pesky Kiernan again.

The second-half scores were frequent and mostly high-quality. But Sligo couldn’t get closer to Cavan than two points, despite Murphy’s four second-half points, which propelled him into man-of-the-match discussions (McKiernan, a star Cavan presence for YEARS, deservedly getting the nod). And Cavan won by three.

Westmeath/Offaly was never a contest, entertaining though it was. Westmeath scored 1-4 and shot a few poor wides, before a stage-frightened young Offaly side scored at all. Competitive hope flickered from the fact and manner of Offaly’s first score, Kevin O’Neill’s drop-kicked goal from Niall McNamee’s clever quick free. Westmeath’s second goal, five minutes later, extinguished that.

And though Offaly started to have their moments, mostly inspired by the ubiquitous, oft-fouled and very hacked off about being oft-fouled Anton Sullivan, Westmeath continued to have theirs. And star man John Heslin was cruelly denied Westmeath’s third goal by corner-forward Luke Loughlin’s goalline block on the line, cruel because Loughlin was playing at corner-forward…for Westmeath.

Offaly’s Jordan Hayes was the width of a post from reducing Westmeath’s eight-point half-time lead to five on 44 minutes. And Offaly’s Cathal Flynn thundered home the goal of the game with nine minutes left. But Offaly were 12 behind by then, after Lorcan Dolan drilled home his second goal.

A “hurling” score,” many observers noted of Westmeath’s 3-22, which would indeed have won both hurling quarter-finals. But Offaly’s 2-16 wouldn’t have been far off. And when Westmeath manager Jack Cooney said afterwards that they had work to do before the final, he meant it.

Football’s quarter-finals dominate this weekend’s telly. And all doubt that Sky Sports get second pick of the fixtures has been removed by their scheduling. Derry/Clare (3.45 throw-in) and Dublin/Cork (6pm) will ‘grace’ Sky Sports Arena on Saturday. Armagh/Galway (1.45) and Kerry/Mayo (4pm) are RTE/GAAGO’s Sunday double bill. Kerry/Dublin and Derry/Armagh semis await. Maybe.