Galway stars seize chance to lay down marker
CONNACHT 3-13 LEINSTER 1-16
THERE'S a fair argument that trying to breathe new life into this competition is one of Irish sport's great lost causes, a viewpoint that was given further ammunition when only 489 people turned up to watch so many marquee hurlers in Tullamore yesterday.
But someone obviously forgot to tell the Galway hurlers that they were playing in the GAA's most endangered tournament, as they fought tooth and nail to pull off a brilliant three-goal second-half comeback and oust a Leinster team that featured seven of the Kilkenny side that started last year's All-Ireland final replay against the Tribesmen.
They may have been wearing Connacht jerseys, but this was an all-Galway side which, while featuring just four of their All-Ireland final starters (Tony Og Regan, Niall Donoghue, Cyril Donnellan and Niall Burke), also included Joe Cooney and Jonathan Glynn, and saw veteran Damien Hayes and Davy Glennon come off the bench to great effect.
To see Connacht come back from five-point deficits in each half, and score a spectacular run of three goals in the final 25 minutes, was confirmation that the Tribesmen have every intention of upping the ante even further this year.
And manager Anthony Cunningham acknowledged that the hunger his players demonstrated while playing against a second-half gale, reflects the sort of competition for places in his squad.
"That's what we want, we have a strong panel and we want competition for places and everyone fighting for a starting place," the Galway boss said.
"We know that effort and that performance won't be enough to beat Kilkenny (in their Allianz League opener) next Sunday and that's our biggest focus now.
"But it was a good weekend all round, with St Thomas' winning yesterday, St Brigid's also (whom he coached to Connacht football titles), and a good old workout for Connacht today.
"It wasn't looking good for a while, it took us a long spell to get into the game, but we're very happy with the workout."
Cunningham had every right to be pleased, considering Leinster were able to start with all but one of the Cats' All-Ireland final defenders (Kieran Joyce), as well as the two Fennelly brothers, Aidan Fogarty and Richie Hogan. They also sprang Eoin Larkin off the bench.
Joe Dooley's provincial side started like a train, sprinting into a five-point lead within 12 minutes, during which time his son Shane also cannoned a rocket of a shot off the crossbar.
Connacht didn't even get their first free until the 15th minute but then, using a big wind advantage, they got up to the pace of the game and held Leinster scoreless for 25 minutes.
With Burke, Donnellan and Glynn impressing up front, Connacht were level (0-8 apiece) at the break, by which time they had also missed two excellent goal chances and shot six wides.
Glynn squandered a gilt-edged chance when he caught the ball on the goal-line after just 23 minutes and got smothered up, and it needed a great hook from Rory Hanniffy to foil Donnellan on the half-hour.
Leinster shook themselves out of their slumber and started the second half as they had the first, with two points apiece from Hogan and Offaly's Joe Bergin helping them sprint into another five-point lead.
That advantage would have been greater if Dooley's flicked attempt at a goal after 42 minutes was not adjudged to have fallen short of the line.
Dublin's Danny Sutcliffe, using his trademark speed, had another great goal chance, set up by Hogan and Colin Fennelly, but he lashed it wide.
However, with Jackie Tyrrell operating as a sweeper and taking over the wind advantage, Leinster looked primed to step on the gas and grab the game by the scruff of the neck.
What then swung proceedings was the arrival of Hayes and Glennon, who injected new pace into Connacht's attack and left some clearly ring-rusty big names looking very flat-footed.
Hayes may be nearly 31, but he still has that speed of vision and movement that's hard to counter, and Glennon, who came off the bench in both of last year's All-Ireland finals, certainly caught the eye.
Goalkeeper Colm Callanan bagged Connacht's first goal from a 20-metre free at the end of the third quarter, and the second came just short of the hour when Glynn caught a long free by Regan and hand-passed it off expertly for Hayes to finish with aplomb.
A few minutes later Larkin put Dooley through for a screamer of a shot that was narrowly wide.
But Connacht, who weren't in any mood to waste such chances, responded as Glennon bravely booted the ball to the net just before he was poleaxed, to give them an unexpected six-point lead.
Larkin finally goaled for Leinster in the dying minutes off a long Tommy Walsh free, but when they tried the same ploy off a last-gasp '65', Cooney showed terrific awareness to block and clear it.
Cunningham acknowledged that some of his substitutions were key, and recently returned full-back Shane Kavanagh and Cooney were also among those who put their hands up to be noticed.
"Everyone is fighting for a place and it's not good enough that they're on the panel," Cunningham stressed.
"We want them all pushing to start, and that will put a lot of pressure on the guys who weren't here today."
Scorers – Connacht: N Burke 0-9 (4f, 1 '65'), D Glennon 1-1, D Hayes, C Callanan (f) 1-0 each, C Donnellan 0-3. Leinster: S Dooley 0-8 (7f), E Larkin 1-0, R Hogan 0-3, J Bergin, A Fogarty 0-2 each, C Fennelly 0-1.
Connacht – C Callanan; B Flaherty, S Kavanagh, P Killeen; T Og Regan, J Cooney, N Donoghue; A Harte, P Brehony; P Gordon, J Glynn, C Donnellan; S Maloney, N Burke, A Callanan. Subs: D Hayes for Gordon (h-t), D Glennon for Callanan (h-t), J Grealish for Brehony (44), R Cummins for Maloney (44).
Leinster – G Maguire; P Murphy, JJ Delaney, J Tyrrell; T Walsh, B Hogan, R Hanniffy; M Fennelly, D Redmond; D Sutcliffe, J Bergin, C Fennelly; S Dooley, R Hogan, A Fogarty. Subs: P Kelly for M Fennelly (47), E Larkin for Bergin (53), C Keaney for C Fennelly (55), P Morris for Sutcliffe (70).
Ref – O Elliot (Antrim)