Ciarán Murphy: Home comfort to loom large in 2018 championship
For the first time in the GAA’s history, home advantage will have a big bearing on events
Mayo will be playing a key round-robin match at MacHale Park in Castlebar in late July or early August. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
For a lot of GAA folk, the first weekend of the Six Nations is one of those rare weekends when the oval ball really gives us pause for thought.
Whether it’s memories of Fred Cogley and Bill McClaren, or its continued unmoving presence on terrestrial television, the Six Nations grasps the attention in a way that autumn internationals and European Cup rugby simply cannot.
So there we were on Saturday, tuned in from 2pm to watch Wales against Scotland with the main course from Paris still to come. Regardless of the recent divergent form of the four teams involved, much of the analysis before those two games focused on two statistics.
The first was that Scotland hadn’t won an away game in the Six Nations anywhere other than Rome since 2010. The second was that Ireland had won twice in 44 years in Paris. Regardless of the injury profile of a given side, or their recent international form, the numbers seemed pretty compelling.
In the end, we should have heeded the signs from Scotland . . . and Ireland, for all their dominance, still had to depend on Johnny Sexton’s stroke of magic in Paris. Indeed, leaving aside the games involving Italy, the only away win in the entire competition last year was secured by a last-minute England try in Cardiff.
There’s no doubt home advantage does count for something when the competition boils down to a series of matches between neighbours who seem to know a little too much about each other and – really, for the first time in the GAA’s history – this year’s championship is going to be about home comforts.
It was interesting to read Lee Keegan’s quotes in these pages on Tuesday morning about Mayo’s intention to make MacHale Park a fortress this year (a fortress still in the foundation-laying stage, judging by Kerry’s win there on Saturday night).
That was one of a clean sweep of four away wins in Division 1 of the National Football League last weekend, which bucks a long-established trend in world sport. Home field advantage is supposed to be just that – an advantage.
League survival is supposedly predicated on winning your home games, but championship games are where you earn your stripes, and they are wont to be played anywhere. Mayo went through the entire 2015 season without playing one championship game at home, and that’s by no means the exception for teams around the country.
This year will be different. Instead of the usual scenario of playing a game or two (or none) at home in the Connacht championship before the party moves off to Croker, Lee Keegan and Mayo will be playing a key round-robin match in Castlebar in late July or early August – a match that will more than likely decide whether they are going to be in an All-Ireland semi-final or not. You can see why Keegan wants to start a winning habit in MacHale Park.
In hurling, home comforts will have to be established even earlier than that. The All-Ireland champions haven’t played a home game in the championship since July, 2011, but Galway welcome Kilkenny to Pearse Stadium on May 27th this year. The vast majority of the Galway team don’t know what it’s like to play a home game in the championship, but they have to make sure Kilkenny feel even more uncomfortable than they do.
Waterford have made the decision to play their home games in the Munster round-robin in Walsh Park, even though their record there is patchy, and the pitch itself doesn’t quite seem big enough to cater to their style of play.
Wexford on the other hand seem hell-bent on making Wexford Park a horrible place to go and get a result. The Cork hurlers have played their first game at the newly redeveloped Páirc Uí Chaoimh, beating Kilkenny, and they have to get used to it fast, because they have Clare at home on that first weekend.
There have, of course, been situations in the past when a venue can spook some opposition. Mayo hadn’t won in Tuam for 43 years until they finally beat Galway in the Connacht championship in 1997. Tipperary didn’t win in Páirc Uí Chaoimh between 1923 and 2008. But rather than hoping individual opponents are spooked by history, counties will have to proactively try and make their own team feel comfortable at home.
Waterford might prefer to play at Semple Stadium, but they have the chance to bring high-profile opponents to a ground that will be packed to the rafters with Waterford fans. They have to make that a meaningful advantage for themselves. The capricious gale blowing in off the beach in Salthill will be an issue for everyone, but Galway have to make sure they’re more comfortable tacking into it than everyone else.
If enough teams successfully make a virtue of their home games, the two round-robin hurling provincial championships, and the Super 8s in football, will be compelling stuff. And then the worth of an ice-man silencing the home crowd in the final moments will be as welcome and fêted as it was last Saturday.