GAA, GAA Championships 2020, Gaelic Games, Hurling

GAA Championships will shine some light

Perhaps it was quixotic to expect anything else. With a grim early winter ahead of us, the elite players of the GAA are set to provide a real glimmer of hope and respite to hundreds of thousands of people across the country.

The GAA have been clear from the outset that they will follow NPHET advice, notwithstanding that HPHET’s close cousin the HSE is all advice and no action. The government and HPHET have decreed the GAA season can continue, the benefits deemed to have outweighed the potential pitfalls.

July and August will probably go down as the two most normal months of 2020 since Covid-19 arrived on our shores, which conversely meant that behaviours generally became more relaxed. We’ve all seen a video of ill-conceived celebrations of county final victories, just as we’ve all heard of widespread house parties. Normal behaviour essentially but as we are constantly and not unreasonably reminded, these are not normal times.

However, the GAA, so far to the forefront of community goodwill throughout the Covid crisis cannot be blamed for people congregating and celebrating after hurling and football matches. This knives-out, skewed logic would likely, therefore, attribute responsibility to Liverpool Football Club and the Premier League for the thousands of people partying unreservedly on the streets of the city after the club’s first league victory in 30 years.

Under no circumstances is anyone stating the championships must go ahead. However, on balance of the myriad aspects to be considered – mental health, threat to public health, escapism and optimism – they should.

The GPA have requested the provision of testing on demand for all players, which for the most part seems reasonable. If players are unhappy with the set-up or have specific individual concerns they can opt-out and there is no suggestion that pressure is being placed on anyone to play.

Based on the general mood, you’d imagine that players are only bursting to get out there – provided the correct precautions are taken –  and as the championship proceeds while sunset arrives earlier, the appreciation for the sacrifice they have made will only heighten.  

The plaudits of amateurism, usually applied to laud the players are now, rather disconcertingly, being used as a stick with which to beat them. Why, some people wonder, should these amateurs be allowed play their sport while other team sports are prohibited? It’s pedantic, and not a little insulting, to suggest that inter-county hurlers, footballers and camogie players are not in the elite category because they are not professionals.

If you don’t agree with the logic behind allowing one of the cherished tenets of Irish life proceed then the chances are you aren’t a GAA fan. For many, the live broadcasts on radio and television over the next eight weeks will provide immeasurable solace and a rare beacon of light and escapism.

On a practical basis, and pragmatism is fast running out, the running of elite inter-county games behind closed doors presents only a minimal risk of out breaks of Covid-19 and as we’ve told by the WHO for quite some time now, we must learn to live with Covid until such time as a vaccine arrives.

Shutting everything down is not the answer unless the period of lockdown is used to increase ICU capacity or effectively establish and implement quarantine for people arriving from abroad. And we saw how effectively NPHET and the HSE used the last lockdown.

The HSE has failed Irish society on more than one occasion and their failure in tandem with the government to increase the number of ICU beds since the severity of this virus became apparent in February is the real failing that our society should currently be considering.

For those who oppose the running of the inter-county championships, it is of no benefit to posit an argument predicated on the facts that the economy has been forced to close or that driving from one end of the country to the other is likely to spread the disease.

Without question, the GAA should provide testing where required and the lead can be taken from other sports whereupon positive tests arise. If they are unwilling to do this, then a mass exodus of the players – the ones who matter most in all of this – would not only be likely but expected. 

For a large section of Irish society, the GAA inter-county championships are a fundamental, engrained aspect of life.  Many people could not give a damn about the GAA and that’s absolutely fine too.

But, with so many holes to be plugged, it seems unseemly and unnecessary to argue so vehemently against an activity – whose protagonists are giving so unselfishly – that will immeasurably benefit large swathes of Irish society through what is shaping to be a winter of discontent.

It is, admittedly, naïve to suggest that the Championship will run without a hitch and the naysayers will be waiting with glee for the first report of a cluster. But so long as we wait on a vaccine this virus is here. And, a behind closed doors championship pales in terms of significant risk factor compared to other currently functioning activities.

In a year bereft of positives though, imagine the excitement if, say, Mayo and Wexford ended their All-Ireland droughts in the depths of winter before a rapt audience.

True, there are risks attached to this year’s championship, but compared to the missteps that have come before, this is not one we will regret. With patience wearing thin and anger brewing, the bigger questions should be aimed elsewhere.

Graded levels of lockdown have introduced a society where all things are considered either entirely right or entirely wrong, with little room for nuance.  However, the positives of allowing our most popular domestic sporting event proceed far outweigh the negatives, insofar as they exist.

We all have room for some positivity in our lives, now more than ever. If these GAA championships improve the mood of a couple of hundred thousand people, then their running will surely be deemed an overwhelming positive.

From George A. Romero to The Walking Dead, zombie shows and films ultimately portray the humans and not the zombies as the self-destructive entity. And, predictably we’re eating away at each other now, while morbidly consuming as much negative news as possible.  

Let’s embrace the unusual presence of the inter-county championships for the next two months – for so many of us it will mean so much.

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Hurling

Preview: All Ireland Hurling Final 2015

It may have taken three months of so-so hurling, but eventually the 2015 All-Ireland championship was emphatically ignited by the remarkable battle between Galway and Seamus Callanan sorry…. Tipperary, the result of which confirmed a repeat of 2012’s two episode showpiece between the westerners and reigning champions Kilkenny.

Somewhat overshadowed in the media in the early part of the week by the story of whether or not a man should have a ban for punching an opponent twice overturned, hurling’s centrepiece will hope to pick up where the second semi-final left off. Kilkenny go into Sunday’s game as favourites, but only marginally and this favouritism is logically based on the wealth of championship winning experience which runs throughout the spine of this side. Of course, the sides met back in July with Kilkenny relatively comfortable victors on a scoreline of 1-25 to 2-15, but history has shown us as recently as both 2012 and 2013 that resoundingly comfortable provincial defeats can be turned on their heads come September. No one will forget the pummelling Kilkenny took in the 2012 Leinster Final and it took a Henry Shefflin masterclass in the drawn final –perhaps his greatest ever performance in the black and amber- before Kilkenny could eventually put Galway to the sword, rather comfortably in the end, in their third throwdown of the summer. Similarly Cork brushed Clare aside in the 2013 Munster semi-final before Shane O’ Donnell’s remarkable hat-trick –again in a replay- led Clare to victory on a magical, almost mythical autumn evening in Croke Park.

The reality is that a team tends to learn more in defeat than it ever does in victory. Galway absolutely steamrolled through an admittedly poor Cork team in the quarter-final before showing considerable resilience and true grit to respond to Tipperary’ and Callanan’s repeat dagger blows by relentlessly driving and picking off points before Shane Moloney’s dramatic and deserved winner. They have found new outlets, particularly in Cathal Mannion and Jason Flynn to take the pressure off a strangely misfiring Joe Canning and seem to rely less now on goals than was traditionally the case. Meanwhile, the midfield duo of Andy Smith and David Burke have been perhaps the most impressive midfield pairing in the country this summer,, though they will face their stiffest challenge yet this weekend in Conor Fogarty and Michael Fennelly.

Galway have powerful ball winners the length and breadth of the field but as Callanan showed last month their full back line –and not just Padraig Mannion-  is highly susceptible to the timeless tactic of the long ball in towards the square. Now Seamus Callanan is one of the finest attackers in the country but in TJ Reid, Kilkenny probably have the finest forward in the game. The Ballyhale Shamrocks man is a supreme athlete and even allowing for his breath-taking stick work, his fielding of the ball is virtually peerless. Galway need to cut off the supply inside, but that means shutting down Michael Fennelly, the ever-impressive Cillian Buckley and the reigning hurler-of-the-year, Richie Hogan.

Hogan is repeatedly referred to as an extremely intelligent hurler, essentially meaning that he has incredible split-second awareness of how the game is evolving around him. It is unlikely that there is another player, on either side, who can match his speed of thought –and possibly his all-round skill set- and this is what makes him so vitally important to Kilkenny. While Reid and the inside line will be relied on to do the scoreboard damage Hogan will be expected to conduct the orchestra from further out the field. We’ve no hesitancy in saying that if Hogan and Reid perform as they did in last year’s drawn All-Ireland final, then Liam McCarthy will be making the journey Noreside once more.

We are not saying however that this is exactly what will happen. Callanan aside, Galway were able to stifle Tipperary’s marquee forwards in the semi-final, with the highly touted John ‘Bubbles’ O’ Dwyer barely seeing the ball all game. Tipperary’s forwards were heavily criticised in the game’s aftermath but that showed a complete lack of respect for what the Galway halfback line –led in the second half by a rejuvenated Iarla Tannion- did in completely stifling their theretofore free-scoring opponents. A strong half-back line has been the backbone of umpteen All-Ireland winning teams –in recent years alone we have seen the extraordinary Delaney, Hogan, Walsh trio and prior to them the incredibly dominant Clare line of Daly, McMahon and Doyle- and both sides will know that gaining the upper hand on the ‘forty-five’ means a surplus of ball raining down on the opposition full-back line. We’re still giving the Kilkenny trio of Buckley, Kieran Joyce and Padraig Walsh the nod over the Tannion, Aidan Harte and Daithi Burke combination, especially as all three have already excelled in the white pressure of an All-Ireland final.

Perhaps the biggest question hanging over Kilkenny –or at least an individual Kilkenny player- is over this year’s captain and full-back Joey Holden. The Ballyhale Shamrocks man has been given the unenviable task of taking over stewardship of the small rectangle from one of the most complete defenders ever, JJ Delaney. He spent winter and spring manning the position in the Shamrocks’ successful All-Ireland Club Championship campaign and has done very little wrong thus far. Joe Canning did score a stunning goal ostensibly off Holden, the last time the sides met -unquestionably one of the best goals you will ever see in Croke Park- but Galway’s spearhead was largely kept in check thereafter. Naturally, bigger questions will be asked on Sunday but there is no evidence so far to suggest Holden is unsuited to the position and he will assuredly have help.

We couldn’t preview Sunday’s showpiece without mentioning the dirtiest word in this year’s hurling championship, the sweeper. While gaelic football is decried and annually announced as either dead or dying –invariably by the increasingly grating Joe Brolly- hurling was thought to be free from the shackles of systems, ideologies and sweepers. Which is kind of a crock of shite, to be honest, but more on that later. Waterford were perhaps the greatest purveyor of the sweeper system this summer but the system was found wanting in the semi-final defeat to Kilkenny, as when the Deise were required to chase the game in the last quarter, they simply lacked for bodies near the Kilkenny goal. Systems, if you will, and specific player’s roles have always been tweaked in hurling –and indeed every sport- and frankly, their longevity depends on their success over a sustained period of time. Teams regularly play with two man full forward lines, a more defensive midfielder on clean-up duty or a designated half-forward with a licence to roam.

What most teams want nowadays –in addition to forwards who are willing to harry and hassle the outrushing, opposition backs- is a player who can sweep up the dirty ball in and around the full-back line, as you simply can’t leave your full-back isolated against a ball-winner who is being fed a glut of quality ball. Noel Hickey –one of the greatest Kilkenny full-backs of all time- gave up three goals to Lar Corbett in the 2010 decider, not because he’s a loose marker, quite the opposite in fact, but because Tipperary’s half-back line were on top that day and were reigning excellent ball in all day towards that day’s match winner. There were only so many times Hickey could stick a finger in the dam. It’s worth noting that a Kilkenny full-back has rarely been left completely isolated since. Indeed, Galway’s second goal in the Leinster Final came as the result of a mix-up between Jackie Tyrrell and Joey Holden and not because of the creation of a ‘one-on-one’.

We wouldn’t dream of claiming we know much about hurling in the 70s and 80s but the idea of devising alternate strategies was of course bandied around then also. Indeed it was Galway who first utilised the two man full-forward line in their 1986 All-Ireland semi-final victory over Kilkenny the result of which was the tactic being deemed both revelatory and bold in the national press. Teams were assuredly forced to be reactive in the event of such a strategy being utilised once more. This is the nature of not just hurling but all sports. You are confronted with a problem, you devise a plan which you hope will counter it and then you apply it on the day. Still, for all the talk of new systems and the unnecessary complication of the game, Brian Cody’s mastery is most often displayed by a subtle tactical change. Richie Hogan’s move to centre forward in last year’s drawn All-Ireland is typical of this, so too the unexpected selections of John Power in the 2014 replay and Walter Walsh –who would receive the man-of-the-match award on debut- in the 2012 replay. Cody likes to shake things up a little and indeed it was Walsh’s place that Power took last year.*

In any event, the preparatory stuff will be done with by now and any selection dilemmas will have been settled by both management teams. For the next few days, it will be about keeping the players focused and somewhat cloistered, far away from the madding crowds. The Galway County Board and Galway hurling en masse clearly have faith in Anthony Cunningham and he has repaid this with a second All-Ireland final appearance in four years. His utterance to Cody after the Leinster Final that he would see him in September shows an admirable combination of confidence and hubris though the hyper-realist Cody seemed reticent to take any deeper meaning from the statement. There is perhaps a slight edginess between the two men going back to 2012 and if Galway have been noted for their confrontational style this summer, Kilkenny will, to a man, happily mix it with them if that is what the occasion requires.

Galway, closely followed by the rest of the country, would rejoice in victory on Sunday and they have absolutely every chance to succeed. That said, all bar one- Ger Aylward- of Kilkenny’s starting fifteen have started and won in Croke Park on what we around here regard as the greatest day in the sporting calendar. One can counter this with the fact that the majority of Galway’s team have tasted minor success in Croke Park but the stakes in terms of pressure and expectation are unquestionably higher in the main event on the first Sunday in September.

Galway will not die wondering and it would not come as a surprise to anyone who has followed this year’s championship if they ended their county’s twenty-seven year Liam McCarthy drought. Still, the feeling is that Kilkenny are metronomically balanced this year and the quality of their performance in the semi-final against Waterford may have been underappreciated in some quarters. Both sides have been errant in attack this season, particularly Galway, and as the last three renewals of hurling’s showpiece confirmed, this simply will not cut muster.

The champions’ progress has been quietly impressive and under Cody there has rarely been a failure to rise to the occasion. If they peak on Sunday then it may well be a bridge too far for Galway

Straight Up Sport Prediction: Kilkenny by 2.

*At the time of writing the teams had not been named but don’t be surprised if Brian Cody makes, what on the face of it, appears to be a bold selection call.

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