GAA Champsionship, Week Four: It’s a long way back for Tipperary

by | May 13, 2022

Plucky territory was a densely populated place after last weekend’s championship action. The four headline hurling and football encounters had predictable final scores. Yet, bar Galway footballers’ qualification for their seventh consecutive Connacht final, each game was unexpectedly close until storming late finishes from the favourites.

Sky Sports Arena viewers got more from their Saturday night out in Cork than Kerry’s 12-point win suggests, as the All-Ireland favourites were only one point ahead 15 minutes after half-time. Donegal and Cavan were level 12 minutes from time until two goals in the final ten minutes scrubbed the eye-catching element from that score. And hurling’s All-Ireland favourites, Limerick, were “put to the pin of their collective collar” (RTE commentator Ger Canning) by Tipperary and were level with six minutes left, before two VERY late goals left them seven-up.

The headline consequence was Tipperary’s all-but-elimination from the All-Ireland. They can no longer reach the Munster Hurling Final. And only one combination of results over the next two Sundays would squeak them into third in Munster’s round-robin, and into an All-Ireland ‘preliminary quarter-final’ (PQF). Currently winless and hapless Cork would have to beat Munster and All-Ireland second favourites Waterford this Sunday, IN Waterford’s Walsh Park, where Waterford haven’t lost in seven matches under current boss Liam Cahill. Tipp would then have to win at home to a thereby rejuvenated Cork, and hope Waterford lose in Clare, a week later.

This would leave Tipp, Waterford AND Cork joint third on two points, to be separated by scoring difference, presumably (the rules appear silent on a three-way tie). And although this specific scenario is long-odds against, it isn’t an unprecedented route to All-Ireland glory, even in the three years of the current championship format. Limerick came third in Munster in 2018 and beat Carlow in a PQF. It is nonetheless…ahem…a long way to Tipperary winning this year’s All-Ireland.

“What have Tipp got left? They’ve thrown the kitchen sink at it, yet they find themselves level,” RTE co-commentator Anthony Daly noted, with eight minutes left in the Limerick/Tipperary match, as Limerick ended a 38-minute spell in scoreboard arrears, having started on very top form, before Tipp filled the class gap between the sides with that sink.

The “only way” RTE ‘Sunday Game Live’ pundit and ex-Limerick forward Shane Dowling said he could “describe it” at half-time was: “If you invited Maurice from Timbuktu, who had never seen a hurling game before, and said ‘Maurice, who are the All-Ireland hurling champions out there?’ he’d say Tipperary, for sure.” But, thrown sinks or not, they never led by more than three points. And they were ahead at all partly because of Limerick’s propensity for schoolboy errors. Limerick were four-up after Aaron Gillane’s eighth-minute goal. Yet they seemed unprepared for Tipp to respond so fiercely.

They still led by four on 14 minutes but failed to score for the next 14, shooting atrociously at times. Unfortunately, Tipp’s radar was almost as wonky. And when Limerick did score again, there were only a point behind. Tipp extended that lead to three, two minutes after half-time. Yet they were over-reliant on sink-throwing and on relative veteran Noel McGrath and relative youngster Ger Browne for their scores (16 of their 23 points). Thus, by the time Browne “ran out of petrol” (RTE co-commentator Anthony Daly), Limerick were level, and took control thereafter.

Yet Limerick’s second half was still error-strewn, one Gillane effort at merely catching the ball suggesting it was made of soap. And, Daly noted, there were even “a good few mistakes” in the partly fabulous move which set up sub David Reidy to give them a one-point lead, 64 minutes in.

In hindsight, there was an inevitability about Limerick coming good, once they’d stayed in the game throughout their error-strewing. Tipp were badly injury-hit. And while Limerick were without leading light Cian Lynch, their subs stood to them, as they always do, Conor Boylan’s goal and a point the key scoring impact from the bench. And, Daly again noted, after the approximately umpteenth such incident: “Tipp seem to be getting a lot of the 50-50 calls,” the clearest provoking him to ask: “Is there a little hand trip there?” over footage of an unpunished rugby tackle on Gillane in the penalty area.

“About as flattering a seven-point win as you’ll get,” declared RTE website reporter Eoin Ryan. Well…yes. But if Limerick can play THAT badly for THAT long, and still win by seven, pulling away…ah…you know the cliche. As Dowling noted after the match, “If Maurice is still in the stadium, I think he’ll know who the All-Ireland champions are.”

If Maurice was drinking in Limerick at 12.30 on Monday morning, he’d “know” more, as press reports emerged of a Limerick player’s arrest and questioning after an alleged assault on a Tipp player in a city bar. He was released without charge but the authorities may take the matter further. Limerick “management” have “dealt with” it “internally” and are leaving it at that, for now. Their next team line-up will be keenly scrutinised, although as last Sunday’s win took them into the Munster final, it is unclear how strong it will be.

Last time we encountered former Tyrone footballer and current RTE pundit Sean Cavanagh, he was blubbing about his native county’s execrable exit from the Ulster championship. He has a reputation for division two-bashing, which is one of many reasons why division two Derry’s win over Tyrone was so popular. And he was back at it Sunday night, analysing division two Cork’s 50-minute adventure in plucky territory. Embarrassingly badly.

With Cork’s main pitch recovering from two Ed Sheeran gigs (no…really), Munster’s GAA had set the game for Kerry’s Fitzgerald Stadium, in Killarney. Cork properly insisted that their home game should BE at home, at their smaller-capacity Pairc Ui Rinn. Cavanagh, though, was unimpressed. “I’m don’t buy into this morale-boosting, they put an effort in,” he blurted at suggestions that Cork deserved credit for being a point behind on 50 minutes. “They lost by 12 points to their most bitter rival,” he added, as if Derry/Tyrone never happened. “Effort, that should be a minimum standard.”

He also claimed, unevidenced, that Cork “made a hullabaloo about bringing the game to Pairc Ui Rinn, because they knew they would get destroyed in wide open Killarney.” And, as you may have guessed already, Pairc Ui Rinn’s pitch is six metres wider than Fitzgerald Stadium. Research, that should be a minimum standard.

Kerry’s sluggish start was attributed to “rustiness” as they hadn’t played competitively for five weeks, whereas Cork hadn’t done so for…six. Erm…anyway. Cork worked tigerishly against demonstrably superior opposition, before wilting as that opposition showed that superiority, especially in the quality of their substitutes. Kerry won the post-50-minute spell by 0-12 to 0-1, as Cork’s pluck proved woefully inadequate.

The Cork/Kerry rivalry used to be arch. And it reflects poorly on Cork that it is barely a rivalry at all these days. Cork beating Kerry in the 2020 Covid-hit, behind-closed-doors straight knock-out championship increasingly looks like the exception that proves the rule. Sean Cavanagh, though. Geez.

Donegal needed twin bits of luck in the final 11 minutes, to overcome a Cavan side proving that while they were in division four this year, they are not a “division four side.” Both goals which ultimately separated the Ulster semi-finalists came from badly mishit shots for a point which bounced favourably off various parts of various anatomies before finding the net. Until then, it was impossible to tell the division four champions from the team two points off a league final.

Cavan were level after an unexpectedly enjoyable first half and would have been ahead but for a magnificent save by Donegal keeper Shaun Patten, who pushed James Smith’s piledriven effort onto the crossbar. Full-forward Paddy Lynch, a 20-year-old with the look of a 14-year-old, was the first-half star from the 20th second, when he opened the scoring. He and Cavan faded after the break. But they were still level after the outstanding, experienced Gearoid McKiernan’s 57th-minute point.

Four minutes later, the lively Jamie Brennan skied a ball into the danger area, and Cavan keeper Raymond Galligan’s punch clear unerringly landed on substitute Conor O’Donnell’s left foot as he ran in on goal. Lionel Messi would have been proud of the finish, especially this year, though he might have been confused by the surroundings. The carbon copy machine was on for Donegal’s 66th-minute second goal, sub Odhran McFadden-Ferry’s mishit dropping onto Paddy McBrearty’s BACK before the long-time leader of Donegal’s attack caught the loose ball and drilled it home. And Donegal were safely, if unconvincingly, Ulster finalists for a gob-smacking tenth time in 12 years.

Meanwhile, Cavan will now enter the new second-tier ‘Tailteann Cup’ competition for lower division sides who fail to reach their provincial finals. In an otherwise even field, they look white-hot favourites, if their best players choose to play – not always a given for past second-tier competitions. The draw for that will be on Monday morning, with the first round on 28/29 May.

Games such as Galway’s 23-point home win over Leitrim in the Connacht semi-final are why the football championship has long-needed a structural ‘throw-it-in-the-bin-and-start-again.’ It had no merit as contest or spectacle. The only thing players on both sides could have got out of it was injured. Backed by the permanent wind in the Atlantic coastal Galway City suburb of Salthill, Galway ‘only’ led by seven at half-time. Into the wind, they ran at Leitrim and invariably ran through them. Galway should get a far tougher test in the Connacht final. And, as a fan of their opponents, Roscommon, I bloody hope so.

Full Munster and Leinster hurling programmes should ensure a better championship weekend. Clare host Limerick in a possible precursor to the Munster Final, although Clare would probably have to beat Waterford as well for that to happen. Sky Sports Arena, 7pm Saturday, is the place and time for Leinster’s big clash as Dublin host Kilkenny. Galway and Wexford visit Laois and Westmeath respectively. Galway will surely win, Wexford will be warm favourites to. So a win in Dublin will be vital for both sides. Draw, then.

No draws likely in Sunday’s Leinster football semi-final double bill. Kildare’s footballers will also be warm favourites to beat Westmeath (2.15pm), while Dublin’s resurgent footballers are unbackable favourites against Meath (4.30pm), the once arch Dublin/Meath rivalry having gone the same way as Cork/Kerry in recent years. RTE coverage of both games, and the Waterford/Cork and Clare/Limerick hurling (2 and 4pm), is on GAAGO. As is BBC Northern Ireland’s coverage of the Derry/Monaghan Ulster semi-final (4pm), which will likely be the best football watch. On-field and off, as the former Tyrone star and current pundit will be Peter CANAVAN, not Sean CAVANAGH.