Championship summer shaping up rather nicely
Wins for Cork and Wexford in hurling and Galway in football have whet the appetite
Cork’s Stephen McDonnell celebrates with supporters after the victory over Tipperary in a classic encounter. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
Wexford’s Lee Chin: there isn’t a sports organisation in the world who wouldn’t fall over themselves for a new star that looks, acts, and plays like him. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Galway’s Cathal Sweeney and Gareth Bradshaw celebrate victory over Mayo after the final whistle. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
Well if we don’t say it, maybe no-one else will.
After four weekends of action, the GAA championships have been better than we could have dared hope. This is not normal, of course. Every year, we ask why May and June are so deathly dull, and the answer is – because that’s the way it has to be.
Every competition has to start somewhere. If we insist on letting everyone take part, then the ritual disembowelling might as well be gotten out of the way as early as possible. But while there have been a few hammerings doled out (in the lopsided farce that is the Ulster football championship . . . wait, what?), for the most part, the last month has been extraordinarily good fun.
We’re four weekends in, and we have seen three of the four All-Ireland finalists in hurling and football from last year beaten. And it wasn’t simply a case of a bad day at the office – in the case of Tipperary they were taken down by a truly breathtaking display by Cork. You could poke holes in the Tipperary performance, but in the end they scored 1-26. They lost the game, but they did a lot of things right.
Kilkenny had been told for six months what a tricky proposition a rejuvenated Wexford were going to be away from home, and even had two months to stew on a defeat at home to them in the league quarter-final. Yet still, when the day of reckoning came, when the moment arrived for Kilkenny to be the Kilkenny we have known and feared for this entire century so far, they couldn’t turn it around.
Similarly, Mayo were forewarned and forearmed about the test Galway would provide for them last Sunday, and were unable to answer the questions when they came. All those different results in different provinces have taken a wrecking ball to people’s presumptions about how the summer would go, primarily the idea that the only way you can catch a big team is to shock them while they had their eye further down the road.
If we’ve spent the last 10 or 15 years complaining about how nothing ever happens before August (and goodness knows, we do it so often we might as well name it the national pastime), then it’s only right that we acknowledge when the opposite happens.
It’s not often you see teams like Wexford and Galway deliver the goods when the pressure was at its height. Both teams are obviously on an upward trajectory, but there was a strong argument before last week that their litmus test might have come a little too quickly.
The accepted wisdom would have been that if Galway hadn’t beaten Mayo last year, or if Wexford hadn’t beaten Kilkenny in the league quarter-final, then maybe they would have a better chance of turning them over in the 2017 championship. But both of last weekend’s underdogs poked the bear, and still clambered out of the bear-pit.
And of course, there’s more to the GAA than just the results business. Sure, Wexford won the game. But last Saturday they won the game on the back of a truly exceptional display by the son of a Malaysian chef, a man so good-looking that every time he stood over a free the Sky cameras did a full toe-to-head camera tilt – the sort of treatment that Brian Stafford certainly didn’t get back in the late 80s.
He has been in the public consciousness now for quite a few years, but Saturday night was when Lee Chin metamorphosed into a full-blown superhero. And there isn’t a sports organisation in the world who wouldn’t fall over themselves for a new star that looks, acts, and plays like him.
Diarmuid Connolly, with his decision to try and escape punishment for an infraction the entire country saw him do, is just the sort of pot-boiler saga that will shorten a few evenings regardless of the rights and wrongs of his actions, the GAA’s unnecessarily covert disciplinary procedures, and the overall refusal of anyone at any level of the association to accept any punishment whatsoever.
It’s worth noting as well that we’ve had sell-outs, and big crowds in small grounds – like in Wexford and Portlaoise, Salthill, Parnell Park and Newry. The atmosphere at Down and Armagh was brilliant, even for those of us watching on television, and the hope must be that the GAA continues to avoid playing games in a half-empty Croker or Clones wherever possible. Even Cavan/Monaghan was good!
The summer is long, and we enjoy complaining, so no doubt the mood will change in the weeks to come. But with Donegal/Tyrone, Meath/Kildare and Cork/Waterford this weekend, it might be time to acknowledge that this is all shaping up rather nicely.