A whole new strange, confusing world

At some point in every year, these pages generally get hit with a flurry of G. A. A. related material within a very short space of time. Either at the end of the National Leagues, towards the conclusion of the All Ireland Championship or as the local club competitions. Now read on…

In keeping with said trend, this weekend two years ago, wheels transporting yours truly made their one and thus far only trip to Wexford Park where our newly crowned county champions were taking on Starlights of the Model County in the Leinster Club SFC. Unfortunately, thereafter things followed a well established pattern whereby we were absolutely trounced by Kilmacud Crokes in the next round.

Two years on and, in terms of catching some G.A.A. action it was a case of being in front of the television for the most unique, unheralded manner of coverage encountered yet. Now, those of a certain age mightn’t realise that the spectacle of inter-county matches being played in October/November – specifically National League games in both codes – is nothing new. Indeed, doing away with the League games which were played prior to Christmas was one of the biggest faux pas the G.A.A. ever committed.

Doubtless there will be those who will immediately point to the prominent position the All Ireland Club Championships have rightly assumed in the fixtures schedule but, if you consider that would only involve three clubs (Senior, Intermediate and Junior champions) in each county so I don’t see any reason why the League and club competitions couldn’t run side by side.

From early blows and epic rivalries to why the game has "suffered", Colm  O'Rourke on his legendary career | Newstalk
Colm O’Rourke often sat out the pre-Christmas rounds of the National League before returning and helping Meath to glory – as in 1994.

Mind you, if any good was to emanate from the havoc Covid-19 has thrust upon the world, from a sporting perspective at least, the unexpected positivity could accrue due to the necessitated re-emergence of autumn/winter inter county action. At this point I must admit that, when at first the idea of a ‘split season – playing club and inter-county games at opposite ends of the year – was mooted, this corner would’ve been vehemently opposed to it. That, though, comes from a personal fear of change which engulfs every facet of my life.

However, if initial evidence is anything to go by, the concept carries much credence. Granted, to this corner, winter football was never going to be a hard sell, given that, even leaving aside Dunboyne’s provincial (mis) adventures, some of the best winters of entertainment I’ve ever enjoyed were following the exploits of both Seneschalstown and Dunshaughlin in the Leinster Club SFC.

Leinster Club SFC winners 2002 – Dunshaughlin

Where the majority of my unease most likely stems from, most likely, was a pondering as to whether pitches would stand up to the intensity of championship action at this time of year. Particularly so in hurling. Well, although there has only been one weekend’s fare on which to judge so far, any misgivings on my part would appear to be unecessary.

Aside, that is, from some of the finest stadia in the country – and in one case amongst the best in Europe – vacant apart from stray seagulls and hungry pigeons. There is absolutely no reason why most if not all of the county grounds in the country couldn’t admit even a limited capacity and still social distance. Considering that Croke Park has often been opened for schools, colleges and lower grade club games – similarly Semple Stadium – so to see them empty (and the Aviva Stadium for the rugby incidentally) was eerie and surely avoidable.

Anyway, before my blood pressure explodes trying to make sense of this whole new strange, confusing world, best to focus on the action inside the lines. Firstly, though, just a personal observation, the deployment of a luminous green sliotar was an absolute God send. How often have you read my decrying the fact that I may as well have been searching for white blackbirds as trying to spot an airborne sliotar in its conventional form.

This might be akin to stating the Pope is a Catholic but, the transforming effect on the viewing experience was remarkable. While it would be very understandable if the players were apprehensive about the change in equipment, on the evidence of the first weekend’s activity in the new circumstances, it seems to be very much business as usual. Or if anything, a little better than before.

Dublin sharpshooter Donal Burke

Na Fianna clubman Donal Burke gave as good a display of marksmanship as was seen in the Drumcondra venue for a long time. Amassing a jaw-dropping personal tally of 1-16 in the process as Mattie Kenny’s Metropolitans eventually shook off a spirited Laois side for whom Ross King was equally efficient in front of the posts, notching 0-10 even though the Dubs chalked up a resounding 2-31 to 0-23 victory over Eddie Brennan’s charges.

Despite my partially malfunctioning eyesight, one of the great attractions of hurling has always been the probability rather than possibility of matches being extremely high scoring. The late Con Houlihan ascribed such developments to the sliotar becoming progressively lighter and thus had considerably more ‘carry’ than was the case in a time gone by. Whatever about it altering scoring patterns in matches, it certainly has altered the role of the midfielder in modern hurling fundamentally.

Primarily because puck-outs generally travel well beyond midfield. There is no greater exponent of modern day midfield play as an art form than Limerick’s Cian Lynch. Of course, the Patrickswell player didn’t lick the brilliance off the ground being a nephew of the great Ciaran Carey – as close as hurling has come to having a player of comparable skill levels to those of Lionel Messi when in possession of a football.

Cian Lynch is the most skillful hurler in the country at present.

To witness his personal performance in his team’s surprisingly straightforward dismissal of the feeble resistance presented by Brian Lohan’s Clare crew was to watch wizardry performed by an artist before than one seeing eye. The records will show that the athletic youngster only registered a single score in the contest, but, as a summation of his imprint on the day’s affairs, that would be commensurate to stating Michelangelo did a little bit of painting and decorating at the Sistine Chapel.

Having said that, what was perhaps most taking about the swashbuckling show produced by those under the guidance of John Kiely was the completeness of their hurling. By that, what’s meant is that every sector of their team had the upper hand over their direct opponents. With Diarmuid Burns, Lynch, Tom Morrissey, Gearoid Hegarty and Aaron Gillane (0-12) looking every inch the stars who obliterated all before them in 2017, it’s easy to see why they are many people’s tip to claim a Christmas Liam Mac Carthy triumph.

Tony Kelly hit 0-17 in Clare’s defeat by Limerick

As for Clare, the overwhelming sense one gets is of underachievement. They are far from alone in that. Very close to home, when Meath amazingly lifted the Sam Maguire in 1996, hope and expectation was that the county were headed for another bountiful harvest. Against that backdrop, that they bagged only one more All Ireland thereafter seems almost like a betrayal.

Limerick themselves could feel justifiably short changed having won three consecutive U-21 All Ireland crowns and not made the breakthrough at senior level until much more recent years. Which is why you’d sort of worry for Clare. In Kelly and Shane O’Donnell and Seadhna Morey and Cathal Malone they still have some of the mainstays of the 2013 All Ireland win, but remember, that’s heading towards eight years ago. Tony Kelly turns 27 before Christmas. How the hell did that happen so fast?

It would be one of sport’s great travesties if the supremely talented man from Inagh were to finish his career with only one Celtic cross. Time waits for no man, woman, child or beast. And then, never forget the big dangerous Cats waiting in the long grass…

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