It’s probably a sign of a good championship that every team togging out this weekend has something to play for. Even Clare, who are guaranteed their place in the Munster final, have the chance to finish off Waterford’s summer in the middle of May. If I was them, I wouldn’t be doing a potential All-Ireland rival any favours.
Anything can happen on the last day of the provincial group stages. When the final whistle went in Parnell Park in 2019, none of us were sure what it meant. Dublin had beaten us so that meant they would finish above us no matter what. But nobody on the Galway team or among our supporters knew right at that moment what the consequences of defeat were. I don’t think anybody in the ground knew.
It was a surreal situation. We actually started the last day of the group stage on top of the table in Leinster. We were unbeaten up to that point. The week before, we beat Kilkenny in Nowlan Park. A win or a draw against Dublin would have put us into the Leinster final. Even a defeat would have sent us through in third place, as long as Wexford v Kilkenny wasn’t a draw.
You can't approach a match with the intention of preventing something happening
Did we know the ins and outs of all these permutations before the game? No, not really. All we knew was that if we won our game, we were in the Leinster final. As far any player is concerned, that’s really all you need to know. I don’t think any player going into this weekend’s games is bothering himself thinking, “Well, if we do x and they do y. . .” There’s no point. Win the game first, ask questions later.
In Parnell Park that day, questions were everywhere. Supporters were piling on to the pitch and Dublin were going wild celebrating, so it was pure chaos all around us as we were walking off. Everyone had different information and nobody seemed to have anything concrete. Kilkenny are a point up. Wexford are winning. It’s a draw match! What the f**k does that mean?
We got into the dressing room and somebody said Kilkenny were winning by a point. Grand. But then it gradually went around that Wexford had equalised with a last-minute free. And soon it became clear that a draw meant we were out. Not just out of the Leinster final, out of the championship altogether.
That scenario had never entered our heads, in all honesty. It wasn’t that we didn’t know it was a possibility, it’s more that you never want to go into a game thinking like that. Why would you? You can’t approach a match with the intention of preventing something happening. So we didn’t go into Parnell Park thinking, “Jesus, if we lose this, it’s a possibility we’ll be out.” We went in wanting to win the game so it would put us in the Leinster final. Simple as that.
The idea of crossing your fingers and hoping the other match wasn’t a draw never entered our heads. So it meant that for those few minutes in the dressing room afterwards, the first emotion was confusion. Hang on – what’s after happening? How can we be out?
We couldn’t actually believe we were gone out of the championship after losing just one game. We were after winning two of our matches, with one draw and one defeat. We had five points and we finished fourth in the table. Meanwhile, in Munster, Cork and Limerick both went through on four points. But we were gone. Season over.
The worst of it for us was that we really felt at the time that things were coming right for us. We had a lot of injuries and niggles in the early part of 2019. I picked up a groin injury in the league quarter-final against Waterford and coming on in that Dublin game was my first bit of action in the championship. Conor Cooney missed a good bit of time after getting injured with the club. Daithí Burke was carrying a knock the whole time.
But we were getting there. Beating Kilkenny in Kilkenny gave us a great boost going into the final weekend of games. Win that and we’d be in the Leinster final a fortnight later. Win that and there was a month to the All-Ireland semi-final. Our injuries were clearing up, we were coming right at the right time. With a couple of minutes left, we were two points up and everything was going to plan. But we didn’t see it out and we paid the price. Nobody to blame but ourselves.
When the dust settled, everyone said it came down to the fact that we didn’t beat Carlow by enough earlier in the group stages. But I never bought that. We beat Carlow by six points in the first game, we did what was needed on the day. The real problem for us that year was that we didn’t beat Wexford when we were six points up in Pearse Stadium. That was the killer for us. Permutations don’t come into it when you win the games you’re in control of.
Up until last weekend, I was a bit fearful for Galway that there was going to be a bit of deja vu. Not beating Wexford in the first game this year could have had consequences. But Westmeath’s draw with Wexford last weekend means Galway are qualified no matter what happens this weekend. In saying that, I think they will want to beat Dublin just to make sure they’re in the Leinster final.
I always felt that winning Leinster was important as a means to an end. Coming from Galway, a Leinster medal didn’t mean as much to me as a Munster medal would to someone from Cork or Clare or any of the Munster counties. I have three of them but I wouldn’t say they mean a whole pile to me if I’m 100 per cent honest.
I just don’t have that long history and tradition of the Leinster Championship as part of my make-up. Growing up, my memory of a provincial final was my brother Ollie winning a Connacht medal in 1999 after beating Roscommon in the final. I was 10 years old. I’m not sure I could have told you who won Leinster that year.
Mad things can happen when you least expect it. Clare should be driving on now
But I still wanted to win it every year I played in it, no question. The motivation was very simple – it’s a direct ticket to the All-Ireland semi-final. Losing it means an extra match and that complicates things. You can pick up injuries or suspensions. And of course you can lose and the whole thing goes wallop. To get to an All-Ireland, you want to keep it all as straightforward as possible.
The two provincial championships are very different from each other. In Leinster, the games are generally played on smaller pitches and the matches tend to be that bit more tactical. I always felt that for whatever reason, grounds like Parnell Park and Wexford Park, Portlaoise and Tullamore meant the games didn’t flow just as well as some of the Munster matches.
In the past decade, you were very often playing against an out-and-out sweeper too – I remember playing against two sweepers against Offaly one year. Sweepers aren’t really a big thing among most Munster teams. I always get the feeling that the Munster Championship is a bit we’ll-score-more-than-you, whereas Leinster just isn’t as off the cuff as that. It’s a bit more rigid and tactical.
I see this weekend as a chance for Clare to really set down a marker. I was listening to Clare FM in the car last weekend after their draw with Limerick and I was really struck by how jubilant they all seemed to be about the result. I know there was a lot of passion in Cusack Park and it had been a really intense game but when the emotion dies down, they need to ask themselves what really did they achieve?
Limerick didn't have Cian Lynch, they didn't have Aaron Gillane, they didn't have Peter Casey. Graeme Mulcahy and Darragh O'Donovan didn't start. Gearóid Hegarty was sent off. And still Clare couldn't beat them in front of their own crowd in a packed Cusack Park. To me, the team that should be celebrating after that isn't Clare. Getting out of there with a draw says an awful lot for Limerick.
That’s why I think any talk of Clare possibly resting players for this weekend against Waterford is pretty dangerous. I think it’s the wrong mindset for them to get into. Going from celebrating a draw against an understrength Limerick team to allowing Waterford a bit of leeway to possibly stay in the championship would be sending out the wrong signal two weeks in a row.
Waterford have had a mixed championship so far. Going full throttle from the league onwards has looked like a bit of a slog for them, especially given how they like to play. That running game takes a lot out of you, especially if the results don’t come with it. Their morale going into this game in Ennis might be brittle enough. But I expect them to put in a huge performance. At this stage, they have no other option.
Given all that, why would Clare give them the boost of playing a weakened team? It can take very little to turn a season around. Imagine Waterford get a run on Clare and everything clicks into place and they bang in four goals on Sunday. And imagine they’re sitting in the dressing room afterwards and the news comes through that Tipp have finished off their season in style by beating Cork in Thurles. That Waterford dressing room would be absolutely buzzing. They’d suddenly be a very dangerous team in the championship.
Even from their own selfish point of view, Clare don’t need to be tricking around and trying to be too clever with these games. If the game is there to be played, the game is there to be won. You can’t be saving yourself for a Munster final. There isn’t a switch you flick on and off.
If anything, it’s the other way around. In 2018, we went into our final group match against Dublin already qualified. Plenty of people were telling us we should be resting players, holding fellas back for the Leinster final. But we played close to our strongest team and we beat them well and built momentum. We didn’t take any chances.
I don't think Clare should either. They're in a good place at the moment, albeit they can't just rely on Tony Kelly scoring 16 points in every game. They're unbeaten. They're feeling good after last week. They have a chance to kill off a team who could be a threat to what they want to achieve down the line. Why risk scuppering the rhythm of their season?
Mad things can happen when you least expect it. Clare should be driving on now and leaving nothing to chance.