Friday 9 December 2016

A pair of epics to restore your faith in hurling

No team deserved to lose on a special weekend of semi-final action as summer finally caught fire

Jamesie O'Connor

Published 21/08/2016 | 17:00

Galway's Jason Flynn tries to come to terms with a devastating defeat while Tipperary's players celebrate a sweet All-Ireland semi-final victory Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach
Galway's Jason Flynn tries to come to terms with a devastating defeat while Tipperary's players celebrate a sweet All-Ireland semi-final victory Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach

Has there been a better pair of All-Ireland semi-finals, or a more memorable hurling weekend? 2-19 to 2-17 in Thurles on Saturday night; 2-19 to 2-18 in Croke Park on Sunday. Hell for leather from start to finish. After a summer that looked like it might fail to yield a match of genuine quality, along come three in the space of seven days, played with pace, honesty and intensity. It would restore your faith in hurling.

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I was going to devote this week's column to the vanquished. How close were we to a Galway-Waterford final? What an occasion that would have been. But watching both games back, it's impossible not to reference the victors' contribution to it all.

First, to Croke Park. Sunday afternoon and a first half laden with drama, and littered with turning points. From Conor Cooney's opening goal, a clear declaration of Galway's intent, to the four-point swing that started when Noel McGrath's shot rasped off the crossbar at one end, and finished with Cooney fielding the clearance and racing away to point at the other. Padraic Maher's thunderous hit on Joe Canning that left both of them requiring treatment, and the crippling blow to Galway that was losing Canning and Adrian Tuohy to injury just before the break.

Fast-forward to the second half. Seven minutes in, and Joseph Cooney intercepts a telegraphed Brendan Maher hand-pass. With Tipp defenders out of position and open road ahead of him, Cooney puts the head down, and the ball on his hurley. After a 30-metre solo, he eschews the easy point on offer and instead rifles it past Darren Gleeson for Galway's second goal. In a match that has tilted and swung one way and then the other, that score put Galway back in the ascendency.

They knew that Tipp had yet to win a tight match all year. A glorious opportunity to capitalise on those doubts and raise the ante presented itself. However, just as in the Leinster final, they failed to make it pay. Poor execution on a couple of occasions and chances to stretch the lead from three out to four and even five points were spurned. All of a sudden, a needlessly conceded free, and the gap was down to two. Within 90 seconds, the sides were back to where they started, locked together at 2-12 to 0-18, and less than 20 minutes remained.

Again Galway got their noses in front. A foul on Andy Smith, which Conor Cooney converted, was followed by a really well-worked score from Conor Whelan that put them two clear. Padraic Maher and Conor Cooney traded scores and like last year, it's who can land the decisive blows in the last 10 minutes. Worryingly for Tipp, they couldn't get Seamus Callanan into the match. Their other match-winners: Bubbles O'Dwyer, on as a sub, and John McGrath, whom Galway's Colm Callanan had thwarted brilliantly earlier in the half, were also struggling to make an impact.

The Tipp forwards were at our end of the field, but it struck me that there was no evidence of panic in the ranks. In the circumstances, panic was entirely justifiable. Most of them had been here before, though, and that experience told. Staying patient and continuing to do the right things is easier said than done, especially when the clock is ticking. But that's what Tipp did, and they finally got the break that turned the match their way.

A long ball out of the Tipp defence got past John Hanbury, who over-committed and missed it by a whisker. John McGrath was on to it in a flash. Bad news for Galway, because this guy has the instincts of a predator. You just knew he wouldn't settle for the easy point that was available. Sensing the opportunity, he advanced, committed the last defender and slipped a perfectly timed pass to Bubbles. The angle was tight, the finish majestic. Bouncing it off the turf under the legs of the rapidly closing Callanan, he put it in the only spot the Galway goalkeeper couldn't cover, and it fizzed into the bottom corner. I'd venture there are no more than a dozen forwards in the country who could have scored that goal.

To their credit, Galway responded. Conor Cooney scored off the resultant puckout, and it was a stalemate once more. Eight minutes left. A speculative effort from Joseph Cooney tailed a yard wide, and a relieved Gleeson launched the puckout long. It broke to Callanan. A frustrating afternoon in the company of Daithi Burke seemed to be summed up when it fell from his hand, just when he appeared to be in the clear, and he did well to recycle it back to 'Bonner' Maher.

Callanan, however, drifted immediately into space in the knowledge he might get it back. Stood up in the tackle, 'Bonner' obliged and while the pass was a fraction in front of him, Callanan had the presence of mind to palm it across to John McGrath, and Tipp had their second goal.

Two hammer blows in the space of 90 seconds, and Tipp had done enough, just enough, to hold on and avenge last August's defeat.

Daithi Burke at the back, and especially David Burke at midfield were immense for Galway, and their supporters are surely entitled to believe that in a one-point game, Canning's presence in the second half would have been enough to tip the scales in their favour.

If Sunday was great, Saturday night in Thurles eclipsed it. The opening 20 minutes alone, with goals flying in from all angles, was electrifying. Who would have thought we'd see Kilkenny's two marquee forwards, TJ Reid and Richie Hogan, starting at midfield, and that Colin Fennelly, a player not known for his finishing, would be the one supplying the rapier edge to the Kilkenny attack?

With 34 and a half minutes gone, the sides were deadlocked at 2-7 apiece. Critically, a Reid free, and points from Michael Fennelly and Walter Walsh in stoppage-time left Kilkenny three ahead going in at half-time. That little bit of daylight was massive in the context of how the half had unfolded.

Two interesting stats from the opening 25 minutes - Puckouts won: Waterford 12, Kilkenny 2. Contested aerial balls won: Waterford 7, Kilkenny 1. Derek McGrath was entitled to go in at the break wondering how his side were three points behind.

Austin Gleeson in particular had a lot to do with those stats, and he gave an exhibition of high fielding. The fact it was TJ Reid and Co, and not some bunch of dummies, that he was soaring over, or bowling over, lends further weight as to just how outrageously talented a player he is. Nonetheless, while the 1-2 he scored from play was a huge contribution, he was also guilty of some bad decision-making on the ball. Three wides, two of which were shots he shouldn't have taken on, another shot to nothing that dropped into Eoin Murphy, and some aimless running with the ball that yielded no dividends on the scoreboard, undid some of that earlier great work. But he has all the tools to be a serious player for Waterford for the next 10 years, and if he can learn from those mistakes, he'll be even better in 2017.

All in all, and Richie Hogan alluded to it afterwards, Kilkenny's greater efficiency and better use of the ball was critical in getting them over the line.

Murphy's nerve and composure to take Pauric Mahony's last-minute free from over the crossbar also deserves a mention, as does this side's refusal, despite all they've won, to accept defeat.

Two other footnotes. 'Brick' Walsh might have failed to get on the scoreboard, but he gave the final pass for 1-5 of Waterford's total, was fouled for two frees, both of which were converted, and was also involved in a move that led to another score. That's 1-8, almost half of Waterford's total that had its roots directly in Brick's ability to hoover up ball, in the air and on the ground. After a massive performance in the drawn match, it was a phenomenal contribution, and what a servant he has been to the Waterford cause. If any player deserves an All-Ireland medal it's Brick, and hurling people, and not just Waterford supporters, will be hoping that McGrath can coax another year out of him.

Finally, there was no quarter asked or given last Saturday night. Yet both sets of supporters took to their feet to acknowledge and applaud Michael Fennelly when he was stretchered off deep into the second half.

That sportsmanship was also evident at the final whistle. Mahony lay distraught and inconsolable on the turf. His performances over the two games had earned him the respect of his opponents, and he has soared in my estimation. They knew there was nothing they could say in those moments, but a number of Kilkenny players went out of their way to shake his hand and acknowledge his contribution to a special night of hurling.

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