Sunday 18 March 2018

Colm O'Rourke: Hardened by loss, driven by fear of further failure

Aidan O’Shea shows his emotion as he celebrates with Cillian O’Connor after Mayo’s quarter-final victory over Tyrone. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Aidan O’Shea shows his emotion as he celebrates with Cillian O’Connor after Mayo’s quarter-final victory over Tyrone. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

There have been three semi-finals in hurling already. Games that have thrilled the nation as something distinctly Irish and played with incredible skill, passion and sportsmanship - the sort of matches that a tourist visiting this country would marvel at.

So you might think that Fáilte Ireland would seize the opportunity to market something so uniquely Irish, especially on two Sundays when Croke Park was not going to be full. Not a bit of it. There was no mention of these two games that were on in the big stadium, and another in Thurles, that tourists must look at and wonder, what goes on there.

Maybe it is up to the GAA as well, but you would think that when Fáilte Ireland are advertising things to do on a Sunday afternoon in August, a big match in Croke Park would at least register on their website.

Moving on swiftly. Last Sunday I wrote about great forwards who did not need any special protection when they were targeted or marked. A lot of names were mentioned and many forgotten, and this week the name of one outstanding forward comes to mind. Frank McGuigan was one of the greatest players to play for Tyrone, and his impact would have been greater if he had not been working in New York for long stretches.

Certainly, he will rank as one of the best two-footed players in history, and his performance in an Ulster final when he scored what seemed like 20 points from play will rank as one of the great all-time displays. Nobody messed with him either and he would have been highly embarrassed if any manager had complained afterwards about the way he was treated. There are probably a few backs with dentures who targeted Frank McGuigan; he did not need protection from anyone, and football has not changed that much.

Now to the minor match in Rio. What the Olympics have proved is that the integrity of sport must be protected, and the GAA, or any other organisation, should not be too smug about their own games. Sport needs to be absolutely transparent and the poor judging which denied Michael Conlan his rightful medal could just as easily be part of any sport.

The most obvious danger to the GAA comes from betting. It is not the danger of compulsive gambling, which is a separate issue, but the opportunity for match-fixing by referees, managers and players. Think it couldn't happen? Will it rain today? There are certainties in life and this is one of them.

The first point scorer? Give a player an easy free. The possibilities are endless and it is an area of the game which must be constantly and thoroughly monitored.

Those issues will be far from every player's thoughts today. A place in an All-Ireland final is worth more than 40 pieces of silver or a sack of gold - just to get the chance to play for a medal with a Celtic cross on it. The medal may be thrown in a drawer, the only thing that is important is the knowledge that you did it. The prize is of secondary consideration.

Mayo know all about the hard road. It is part of their DNA now - a summer of expectation, with the roof falling in by September. Different opposition, same disappointment. And yet they just keep coming back.

If you travel through Kerry, it won't be long before you come across a player or players who have won several finals. In Mayo it is exactly the opposite - there are players who have lost finals at every crossroads. In the stations of the cross, theirs is the agony in the garden.

This year has been much more interesting; losing early to Galway has been no harm at all. They had become like Kerry with an easy gallop to Croke Park in August, nearly always untested when coming through Connacht and not prepared for some of the tragedies that befell them.

Sometimes it was because of bad selection, mistakes by individual players which cost them goals, not to mention crucial refereeing decisions and rank bad play by the young men on the field.

Mayo played a new game against Tyrone. The foundation was defence. The backs had a three, two, three formation. It meant that no fires broke out in the kitchen but they were strapped for numbers upfield.

With Mayo there is always criticism of their approach. Too gung-ho and people say they should wise up and play a more modern game. Then against Tyrone the barbs were based on their unwillingness to attack and put the game to bed when Seán Cavanagh was sent off. Somebody was praying for them on that day and their approach today will have to be more flexible. This means that they must go for the kill, if and when the opportunity arises.

There probably won't be much new with Tipperary. It was amazing the number of people who I spoke to after their win against Galway who enjoyed the Tipp approach to the game. It was a bit like old-style football. Of course the cream was provided by Michael Quinlivan and Conor Sweeney up front but supporters also liked Peter Acheson, George Hannigan, Robbie Kiely and Bill Maher, among others, hitting hard and playing as if they were enjoying themselves. Maybe there is something in this new idea of kicking the ball.

Tipperary have travelled light for all their games. Liam Kearns has not had to worry about supporters storming the dressing-room, yet they find themselves one day away from the big one. For a team who only just survived in the third division of the league, this was not supposed to happen, but they have played with an innocent abandon which all GAA people have enjoyed as they are fed up with constipated football.

Not that the success of Tipperary should be used as an example of how the present system can work for everyone - that is not the case.

That debate is for another Sunday. Tipperary are hoping for their day in the sun in Croke Park but the weather gods may have other ideas. They are also playing a hardened team: hardened by loss, criticism and disappointment. There is no joy in Mayo's play in Croke Park, but plenty of fear of what has happened too often before.

Yet Mayo have more good players than Tipperary, at least at the moment, in the O'Shea brothers, the O'Connors, Colm Boyle, Lee Keegan and Andy Moran, who showed all day against Tyrone. A man playing like he is on death row. This is his last chance of a reprieve and that can only come in a month's time. Mayo will continue the chase their rainbow.

Tipperary to play like men, but Mayo to win.

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