GAA weekend that was: Is Leinster getting competitive?
Optimism may have been mild but the arrival of June was surprisingly upbeat
Kildare’s Kevin Feely takes on John O’Loughlin of Laois in Tullamore. Photograph: Inpho
Reasons to be cheerful
There may have been downsides to the weekend – a second successive year with fewer than 20,000 at a Munster hurling semi-final and yet another Diarmuid Connolly disciplinary controversy – but as June breaks the championship weekend just past featured some more cheerful elements. Let’s not get carried away but let’s not fight it, either.
There had been much anticipation attending Clare’s first championship outing under the successful under-21 management of Gerry O’Connor and Donal Moloney. After David Fitzgerald’s five years in charge delivered an unforgettable All-Ireland in 2013, in the years since there’s been mounting championship frustration and criticism that the sweeper system was stifling the natural talents of the team.
So what would be the effect of an unshackled Clare? The All-Ireland four years ago was won with an orthodox set-up that delivered 5-16 in the replay against Cork but scores proved harder to come by in the interim.
Sunday’s 3-17 against Limerick was the highest score by Clare in Munster since the county’s last win – 2-20 against Waterford in 2013. Even outside the province Clare hadn’t surpassed the total in 70 minutes except in qualifiers against Laois and Offaly.
In the All-Ireland stages – quarter-finals and up – the final replay against Cork remains the only time 3-17 was exceeded this decade.
There were higher scores posted on three occasions in qualifiers against Wexford – coincidentally now managed by Fitzgerald – but in all matches extra time was required and the outcomes split one win apiece and one draw.
Clare didn’t abandon all defensive sensibility at the weekend but going without the extra defender, emphasising quick ball into the forwards and the resurgent form of Shane O’Donnell and Conor McGrath – both now free of injury – paid off as the county gets ready for either Cork or Waterford in July’s Munster final.
And it wasn’t just hurling despite Carlow’s parking of the bus in Portlaoise on Saturday evening. In the aftermath of the enjoyable shoot-out at Parnell Park Louth manager Colin Kelly gave a frank appraisal of his team’s gung-ho approach to the 3-9 to 0-27 defeat against Meath.
“We’re playing a sweeper role for the past couple of years and we just felt it wasn’t working so we decided we’d push up today and have a cut. Probably just a bit too much for us and their quality showed through and they were very good and value for their win.”
Maybe things are changing in the recently moribund Leinster championship.
Meath’s win was both entertaining and impressive. Louth may have been more open in playing a conventional defence but Meath’s forward movement and finishing – the 27-point total was their highest since taking Carlow for 7-13 three years ago and no-one can remember them previously scoring 27 times in championship – commanded attention.
Their semi-final against Kildare on 17th June will be eagerly anticipated. Cian O’Neill’s side had a thumping victory over Laois 1-21 to 1-7 after conceding a goal in the first minute. At the start of the league Kildare launched a 10-point raid on Páirc Tailteann so Meath will be forewarned and if the semi-final lives up to expectations it won’t only deliver an absorbing contest but should also provide a competitive presence in the provincial final.
Dublin will be favourites to beat either Westmeath or Offaly in the other semi-final but whoever emerges will be buoyed by Carlow’s defiance last weekend and unless there is radical improvement from the champions – and assuming they do actually win – Meath, under Andy McEntee, and Kildare will both fancy their chances of putting up their most competitive showing of the Jim Gavin era.
Looking up in the basement
Carlow’s slightly unlucky – they had to play with 14 men for most of the second half – 12-point defeat by All-Ireland champions Dublin was actually the first double-digit reverse suffered by a Division Four county this championship.
To the losers’ credit it has to be remembered that they had won their first round match (for the first time in six years) and were facing Dublin for the first time since 1988 but showed little sign of apprehension apart from a heavily defensive game plan, which only unravelled after Brendan Murphy had been sent off and they tired towards the end.
Their victory in May came against another Division Four side Wexford, who had been promoted this season. Bottom of the table London also lost to peers, in their case Leitrim after a very competitive tussle. Two of the other three defeated sides from the fourth grade both went down by only a point – Limerick after a storming comeback against neighbours Clare from Division Two and Waterford famously against another second-flight county Cork, who they haven’t beaten since 1960. Wicklow lost their first outing against Louth by just five.
Westmeath, this season’s Division Four winners, have yet to play but are odds-on to defeat Offaly despite their higher status in the year’s league whereas Leitrim after winning in London face Roscommon who they haven’t beaten since 2000 - so maybe it’s about time.