#CarlowRising at the heart of a momentous weekend
Sean Moran: With new eras on the way, centrality of GAA remained a talking point
Carlow’s Richard Coady and Diarmuid Byrne lift the trophy after winning the Division 2A hurling league final. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Considering the amount of flux at administrative level with a new presidency just under way and more unusually, a new director general about to take office, the weekend just gone provided a strong reminder of the centrality of the games to the life of the GAA.
The familiar slalom weave through the closing minutes of the decisive football league matches across the divisions generated the usual excitement, elation and bitter disappointment.
Most attention was focused on Ballybofey where because of Mayo’s late Kevin McLaughlin point, Donegal in the space of a few seconds went from securing their place in the top division to sliding down as surely as if they had landed on a snake in the board game.
But spare a thought for Longford and Tipperary, who ended up losing late in injury time to both of the counties promoted ahead of them – Armagh, Fermanagh, Roscommon and Cavan, respectively.
The weekend overlapped nicely with the appointment of Tom Ryan as DG in that his Carlow provenance became another box ticked by one of the association’s smallest counties.
A year ago Jim Bolger became the first Carlow chair of Leinster Council. The weekend before last the county footballers earned promotion from the bottom division for the first time since the spring of 1985 and although they narrowly lost to neighbours Laois last Sunday, they will have the chance to avenge that on Easter Saturday at Croke Park in the Division Four final.
It has been a hugely satisfying campaign for the team under Turlough O’Brien, who oversaw a competitive league last year and the county’s most protracted championship in decades. That incremental progress has been maintained.
Last Sunday the Carlow hurlers managed by Colm Bonnar made it back to Division 1B where they play next season for the first time in six years. In beating Westmeath in the Division 2A final, they overturned the result of the regulation match a few weeks ago.
This must have felt karmic for Carlow, who have been the victim of such reverses of fortune in each of the past three years. It’s something that Bonnar experienced last year when having lost to Antrim in the 2A final, they gave the same opposition a heavy beating in the Ring Cup final last June.
All told it presents a striking dual achievement for a county of roughly 56,000 that in the last 20 years has won Leinster club titles in both football and hurling. Speaking about Carlow and his experiences there as twice manager of the footballers, Luke Dempsey was very complimentary about how Gaelic games were administered in the county.
“The reality of football in Carlow is that it’s a great sporting county. The county board when I was there worked so hard to keep both codes represented at the highest level as to raise funds for centre of excellence in Fenagh.”
Punctuating these celebrations came the news that Ryan had been appointed to the top job in Croke Park, giving further impetus to the Twitter hashtag #carlowrising.
Just after the hurlers had celebrated, another hurling milestone – albeit a not massively trumpeted one – was laid down by the county when Paud O’Dwyer became the first Carlow official to referee the All-Ireland club hurling final when taking charge of the replay between Cuala and Na Piarsaigh and he ended up whistling an epic.
There had been plenty of comment in the lead-up to the drawn match on St Patrick’s Day that the hurling final had struggled for around 15 years to provide a great contest – a trend amplified by the number of edgy football deciders over the same period.
It would be almost accurate to say that 2018 wiped the slate clean.
Viewed over the two days, it was an extraordinary tussle. Either side would have been a plausible winner and it must haunt the Limerick champions that their peak plausibility came when awarded a free in the first minute of injury-time on the first day to put them four points up and effectively out of sight.
It went agonisingly wide but ultimately all Na Piarsaigh had to do was survive a last frantic attack that they nearly broke up at a couple of key moments before the 20-metre free for a foul on Colm Cronin was awarded.
Seán Moran’s goal was something of a collector’s item given the difficulty of sticking such frees into the net when the defenders know that all they have to do is stop it – three points down, the striker has no element of surprise on his side.
In extra time David Treacy’s last-minute free to tie it all up after 80 minutes was complicated by the icy blasts blowing down from the Railway End.
The replay appeared to favour Na Piarsaigh, who had two quality replacements back on the bench after suspension and a clear indication that if they could start well – unlike in the drawn match and the semi-final – they were well capable of sufficient improvement to copper-fasten their superiority.
Yet how many times do we see it: a team – no matter how much of an edge they appear to have – who don’t take chances to win a match when on top, end up bitterly regretting it?
The momentum shifts over the two matches were dizzying. Just as one team looked as if they had the upper hand, they faltered and the opposition sensed opportunity.
Another few minutes on Saturday and who could have ruled out the prospect of the talented Limerick champions plotting a way back into it? But Cuala’s response was as clinical as it appeared unlikely when they fell behind going into the added-on minutes.
Their time had come; Na Piarsaigh’s was up.