GAA weekend that was: June you’ve been great
There’s been a provincial shake-up, with new patterns emerging and old crises dying out
Cork fans celebrate a point during Sunday’s win over Waterford. Photograph: Oisin Keniry/Inpho
What a month June has been for the previously unheeded early rounds of the championship. Matches of genuine significance to counties have been played out and although the qualifiers offer great opportunity for reinvention, teams have made it their business not to need that sort of reinvention unless they have been forced into it.
There has been quite a bit of comment on how three of last year’s All-Ireland finalists have bitten the dust in their province by mid-June - two of them, Kilkenny and Tipperary, on the first defence of their provincial hurling titles.
This (All-Ireland finalists failing to reach their provincial finals the following year) hasn’t happened in modern times - the past 50 years - and the possibilities previously were clouded by strictly seeded draws.
Whatever is going on in the inter-county championship has the capacity to mutate into a crisis
In recent years change at the top in hurling has come with all the swiftness of tectonic plates shifting but already this summer has seen an upheaval. Waterford’s defeat on Sunday means that only Galway of the All-Ireland semi-finalists of the past two years, have made as far as the provincial final. The last time Leinster and Munster champions both failed to make the following year’s provincial final was back in 1994.
If we look back just under seven years, the football championship was a different place. Call it peak qualifier. For the first time in the 10 years of the structure the qualifiers provided all four All-Ireland semi-finalists: Cork, Dublin, Kildare and Down.
Naturally the focus on the provincial championships was alarmist. The qualifiers and provinces, like the farmer and the cowman, should have been friends as progress to All-Ireland titles had been evenly split with five winners having previously lost in championship and four having won their provincial titles.
In 2010 with the last four all on their second chance the question was: could the provincial system retain its relevance.
It’s a recurring aspect of the GAA that whatever is going on in the inter-county championship has the capacity to mutate into a crisis and so when these existential fears proved groundless in the years that followed - not only were Mayo last the first qualifier team in a final since 2010 but even the All-Ireland semi-finals became hard to penetrate without a provincial title.
Only Tyrone twice, Mayo and Tipperary last year managed the feat.
The talk steadily became one of the ‘competitive crisis’ for the provinces and the reality certainly reflected that for a while with Leinster and Connacht looking inert.
Only one defeated All-Ireland finalist has made it back to the final a year later through the qualifiers
Already June has addressed this situation. In Connacht, Mayo fell for the second year in a row and this time with a real sense that transitional change has taken place. Galway’s up and coming team has now nailed them twice and whatever about the prospects of Kevin Walsh’s team becoming All-Ireland contenders the reality is that Mayo are slipping back.
Maybe the qualifiers can revive them again but history is against it, as only one defeated All-Ireland finalist has made it back to the final a year later through the qualifiers.
Then on a glorious Saturday evening and afternoon the shape of Dublin’s challenge in Leinster clarified. Westmeath tipped the pedal to pull away from Offaly at the end of their replay in Mullingar and will reprise the last two provincial finals by taking on the champions in this year’s semi-final.
Tom Cribbin will be encouraged by the relative success of Carlow in frustrating Jim Gavin’s team and having tried the same in 2015 and ‘16, he has the data to plan the latest challenge. Before the championship started he made the point that a team always learns something from playing Dublin.
In the minds of most however, the more likely challenge will come in the provincial final and if the champions get there they will find in Kildare a team that looks well prepared to give a good account of themselves - or at least better than they have been accustomed to doing in the Gavin era, to date 16 and 19 point defeats.
Although the much anticipated Meath challenge proved illusory, Cian O’Neill evidently has the team in great physical condition and well organised. If it is to be a first Dublin-Kildare final in eight years there will be a good crowd with genuine optimism on both sides.
Ulster appears to have collapsed from the strain of providing June with its most reliably competitive football
Against that, you have to factor in Cork’s nosedive since they nearly clipped then All-Ireland champions Kerry in 2015 and the effect that has had on Munster. It’s no use in acquiring Tipperary as a ‘new’ football county - albeit ravaged by injury and emigration - if we lose one of the old ones.
And yes, Ulster appears to have collapsed from the strain of providing June with its most reliably competitive football matches. Tyrone’s devastation of Donegal means that so far just two of the province’s seven matches have gone to the wire.
Maybe Cork can find a performance - Monaghan definitely will - and the Munster and Ulster championships will sign off with compelling finals.
That’s up to July.