Monday 15 July 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Rip-roaring tales of the unexpected with both provincial finals mouth-watering in different ways'

Clare's Diarmuid Ryan takes on Mark Coleman of Cork: 'The combination of a venomous attack and a dodgy defence means Rebel games are never dull.' Photo: Eóin Noonan
Clare's Diarmuid Ryan takes on Mark Coleman of Cork: 'The combination of a venomous attack and a dodgy defence means Rebel games are never dull.' Photo: Eóin Noonan
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

The hurling championship is just too predictable these days. Anyone could see Galway wouldn't make it out of Leinster, despite beating Kilkenny in Nowlan Park, that Clare would suffer their biggest championship defeat in 26 years and beat Cork a week later and that Wexford would make it to the Leinster final despite only beating Carlow.

Also that Kilkenny would be in that final despite only taking one point from two games with Galway and Wexford, that Limerick would remain one of the two favourites for the All-Ireland after being well beaten by both Cork and Tipperary and that Dublin would make the quarter-finals.

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OK, maybe not everything that's happened could have been foreseen. The most surprising thing of all may be that the Leinster Championship beat its Munster counterpart for excitement.

This was most graphically illustrated last weekend. On Sunday, Munster's marquee game between Limerick and Tipperary spent a full 70 minutes petering out. Whereas the previous night's Leinster finale resembled a whodunnit fiendishly constructed to keep the audience off balance before delivering the most surprising conclusion possible.

You can see why Davy Fitzgerald derided those who'd dismissed Leinster as the lesser provincial competition. But for all the excitement it provided, the Leinster Championship's reputation continues to trail that of its southern rival. Tipperary, Limerick and Cork head the All-Ireland betting while Wexford and Dublin are more or less discounted as contenders.

The difference in quality between the two provinces was obvious in that fraught period of injury-time between Kilkenny and Wexford. One unanswered point from either team would have been enough to eliminate the other and keep Galway in the championship. But despite considerable huffing and puffing, neither side could find a score. The Tribesmen found just how dangerous it is to rely on the kindness of strangers.

If the Munster-Leinster imbalance is one anomaly, the position of Limerick is another. John Kiely's team could well end up in the All-Ireland final having lost three games. Should they lose the Munster final they'll enter the quarters with a 2-3 record.

They're unlikely to be as lackadaisical in their second meeting with Tipp. The final provides Limerick with the opportunity to find out just how good they are at the moment, to go direct to the semi-final, instil a few doubts in their most dangerous rivals and reward their fans with only a second ever provincial win at the Gaelic Grounds.

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It's remarkable how little reputational damage has been inflicted on Limerick by their two defeats. Last year's heroics have something to do with this, as does their imperious national league campaign. The machine-like precision and power displayed against Clare also gave the impression that the champions are still just limbering up.

The likes of Aaron Gillane, Gearoid Hegarty, Diarmuid Byrnes and Kyle Hayes certainly seem to have grown in confidence since the All-Ireland victory, yet it remains to be seen whether we're reposing too much faith in Limerick. Galway looked to be cruising for much of last year's championship before the final revealed them to be running on empty. Limerick are the big mystery of this summer.

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Aaron Gillane of Limerick celebrates after scoring his side's first goal during the Munster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Round 4 match against Clare at the LIT Gaelic Grounds. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Tipperary, on the other hand, are pretty transparent. Liam Sheedy's policy of going all out from the start has paid dividends for a side in need of a confidence boost after last year's disastrous exit. The injuries to Bonner Maher and Cathal Barrett may be held against Sheedy by hindsight lovers but there's little doubt he's chosen the right strategy for his team.

Everyone was well aware of Tipperary's attacking potential, but the big surprise of the campaign has been the dominance of their all Maher half-back line. This time last year the trio didn't seem to have the legs for a new generation of pacey forwards. Now all three are in the best form of their careers, a total of 11 points from play indicating they've got things pretty well in hand on the defensive end.

That dominance has also eased pressure on a full-back line which has benefitted from the breathing space. Tipperary have been one of the most miserly defensive teams in the competition, conceding an average of 20 points in four matches and just a solitary goal.

Up front, the four horsemen of the apocalypse have ridden roughshod over all defences. They seem to be taking it in turns: John O'Dwyer top scoring from play with seven points against Cork, Jason Forde doing likewise against Waterford with 1-5 and John McGrath against Clare with 0-6. Seamus Callanan has been best of all with a goal in every game and enough points to finish joint top scorer with O'Dwyer against Cork, McGrath against Clare and beat them all against Limerick. The quartet look unstoppable and anyone wishing to stop Tipp will have to put up a big score.

Cork are the championship's second highest scorers but also possess, by some distance, the poorest back-line of the remaining teams. The 7-87 they've conceded in four games is a lot worse than the next most porous defence, Dublin, who've shipped 5-79.

The combination of a venomous attack and a dodgy defence means Rebel games are never dull. Their matches with Tipperary, Limerick and Clare were the most exciting of the Munster championship. The presence of Pat Horgan, as irresistible in his own way as Callanan, Alan Cadogan and Seamus Harnedy means they possess a puncher's chance against anyone. Yet to win the All-Ireland, Cork will probably have to beat both Tipperary and Limerick. It's an unlikely scenario for the great entertainers.

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Cork’s Patrick Horgan is a picture of concentration as he fires over a free at the LIT Gaelic Grounds yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile

Galway's elimination may clear the way for Kilkenny in Leinster, but the 'Crafty Cody coming in under the radar' chat is wrong-headed. The Cats failed in their big test against Galway and were a puck of the ball away from exiting altogether against Wexford. They hung in there on both occasions, but hanging on is unlikely to be good enough against any of Munster's big three.

Kilkenny's defence was badly exposed by Galway, while in attack they depend on TJ Reid more than any other team depends on a single player, even if Adrian Mullen announced his arrival at senior level last Saturday. That they are favourites to beat Wexford owes a lot to the feeling that Kilkenny will thrive in Croke Park and Wexford wilt there.

Is it unjust that Wexford continue to be regarded as not really an elite team? They were arguably the best team in the Leinster round robin, deprived of victory against Dublin by a last-gasp goal and against Galway by a last-minute save, having the better of it for long spells against Kilkenny. One of only two unbeaten teams, the Slaneysiders possess the best defensive record in the competition.

The notion that they will be found out persists because that's precisely what has happened at this stage of late. Last year saw a seven-point quarter-final beating by Clare and the year before that a nine-point Leinster final beating by Galway was followed by a four-point loss to Waterford in the quarters. Fool me three times . . .

Yet no team in the provincial finals will be as fiercely motivated as Wexford who haven't won a Leinster title in 15 years and face a vulnerable Kilkenny. A Wexford win would be an emotional highpoint and also a deserved reward for the work Fitzgerald has done. That decider has upset written all over it.

It's hard to think of a Dublin team as sentimental favourites, but one reason last week's win over Galway was so popular is that they were in such hard luck last year, throwing away the game against Kilkenny before losing to Wexford by two and Galway by one. This year they've drawn a game against Wexford they should have lost and against the Tribesmen closed it out in a way they couldn't manage 12 months ago.

The role of Mattie Kenny shouldn't be underestimated. In both the drawn match and replay of the 2018 All-Ireland club final, his Cuala team seemed on the verge of defeat against Na Piarsaigh but held their nerve.

It's hard to see Dublin overcoming the beaten Munster finalists in the quarters but their goalscoring ability (only Tipperary and Kilkenny have scored more) means they can't be written off. Eamonn Dillon, who's got three in his last two games, will worry any defence.

Galway will feel extremely frustrated at exiting the championship just as Joe Canning was about to return. They would doubtless have improved, although there was a sloppiness about their entire campaign. The close shave against Carlow, the lacklustre display against Wexford and the failure to properly kill off Kilkenny all foreshadowed the disaster of Parnell Park. That kind of thing has dogged Galway hurling before and suggestions that Micheál Donoghue had banished it entirely now look premature.

Both provincial finals are mouth-watering in different ways. Leinster holds the possibility of a landmark upset while it's hard to see how Munster can avoid being a classic with the talent involved. It's also likely that we'll witness a third Tipperary-Limerick match on August 18.

Though we may not. Stranger things have happened. Didn't they happen last Saturday night?

Royal Ascot made all the more enjoyable for having a hard-working Irishman as its king

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Aidan O'Brien. Photo: Getty Images

Ah, Royal Ascot. The most English of all sporting occasions, the royalty, the pageantry, the top hats, the Irish farmer’s son winning more races than anyone else.

Every day at the festival begins with the Queen being conveyed down the course in a carriage which looks like it probably turns back into a pumpkin at midnight.

The King of Royal Ascot, cutting a considerably less obtrusive figure behind his dark glasses, prefers to shun the attention of the crowds.

There’s something wonderful about Aidan O’Brien’s pre-eminence at Ascot where this year he was going for a tenth leading trainer title, a fifth in a row and trying to break the all-time record, set by himself in 2016, of seven wins at the meeting.

This is, after all, a meeting so snooty that attendance in the best enclosure can only be secured via invitation by a member. Yet the most important man at the meeting is not an aristocrat or a plutocrat but someone who grew up in rural Wexford and forged his way by dint of talent and effort.

I’m not always delighted with O’Brien’s dominance of the sport. This year small Meath trainer Sheila Lavery’s first ever classic runner Lady Kaya would have been a fairytale winner of the 1000 guineas; 83-year-old Kevin Prendergast’s Madhmoon could have ended an epic family quest for victory in the Derby. Instead, both horses finished second behind O’Brien runners, making the story much more routine.

But O’Brien’s victories at Royal Ascot delight me. As one of my daughters said this week, “I’m not a nationalist but I feel national pride when he wins.” It feels like a snook is being cocked at commentators you know find it more fitting when someone like Sir Michael Stoute claims the honours.

Those victories are followed by interviews which resemble a kind of performance art, O’Brien rattling off a list of names like one of those lads who used to get up in the back row of The Late Late Show audience and sing, “I’d like to say hello to everyone at 83 St Mary’s Park.” There was a new refinement after Circus Maximus’s win in the St James’s Palace Stakes on Tuesday when O’Brien suggested credit should be directed towards the horse because, after all, it was him who had to do the racing.

The trainer’s insistence that he had nothing at all to do with the switch which saw the winner drop back from the mile and a half he’d run just 17 days earlier in the Derby to a mile should probably be taken with a pinch of salt. That victory was a triumph of the trainer’s art.

When one door closes for O’Brien, another opens. Thursday’s defeat of hot favourite Fleeting in the Ribblesdale Stakes must have been a blow, yet two hours later there was an O’Brien 1-2-3 in the King George V Stakes. Handicaps have generally been fallow territory for O’Brien at Ascot, he’d only won three before this year, so this perhaps indicates a further refinement of the winning strategy.

Watching O’Brien, as ever, was Queen Elizabeth. I was surprised to find myself moved by an unashamedly sentimental tribute to her put together by Brough Scott for ITV Racing. Perhaps that’s because it showed this woman who’s had to spend much of her life pretending to enjoy public occasions, really lighting up when her horses won at the festival.

The smiles on her face watching Choir Boy win the Royal Hunt Cup in 1953 and Estimate taking the Ascot Gold Cup 60 years later were very different from those dictated by diplomatic protocol. How can you dislike someone so open about displaying delight at their favourite sport?

It’s easy to mock the procession and assorted hoopla at Royal Ascot. Yet that’s part of what makes the meeting special and the elitist flavour of it is much more easily digested when you know that by the end of the week the real ruler is an Irishman.

Shy and modest though he is, there is something unmistakably regal about Aidan O’Brien. He and Queen Elizabeth both know what it’s like to be a monarch. The difference is that her crown was vouchsafed to her by birth whereas his is the result of getting up at five every morning and devoting a huge proportion of his waking hours to getting better all the time.

The king is alive, long live the king.

The Last Word: Time to blow whistle on poor officiating

Rotten refereeing is ruining the Women’s World Cup. On Thursday night, despite VAR showing that Carli Lloyd was offside in the build-up to the USA’s second goal in their 2-0 victory over Sweden, referee Anastasia Pustovoitova of Russia decided to allow it anyway.

This followed the previous night’s farcical shenanigans when two VAR consultations and a retake meant an equalising penalty awarded to Argentina for a foul in the 85th minute was not scored until the 93rd minute. Yet referee Ri Hyang-ok of North Korea played just five minutes’ injury-time as Scotland looked for a winner to bring them to the knock-out stages.

The France-Nigeria game was scoreless heading towards the final ten minutes when the home side were awarded a questionable penalty by Honduran referee Melissa Borjas. France’s Wendie Renard blasted the spot-kick well wide only to get a second chance because of an, at best, marginal infraction of the movement rules by ‘keeper Chiamaka Nnadozie. She scored and France scraped home. I doubt Nigeria would have got such a second chance.

The tournament remains well worth watching, but the past week has been infuriating. Though if you’re nostalgic for old style League of Ireland refereeing, this is the competition for you.

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The contrasting fortunes of the Barr siblings are like something from a heavy-handed parable about the vicissitudes of fate. On Thursday night of the week before last, 400m hurdler Thomas finished second at the Bislett Games in Oslo, his third Diamond League podium finish of the season as he builds towards the world championships later this year.

Four days later, his sister Jessie announced her retirement at the age of 29 after struggling since 2014 with injuries which included a stress fracture to the toe, two Achilles tendon injuries and calf problems. The future looked so bright for her when she made the European Championship 400m hurdles final at the age of 22 in 2012 but even in the injury prone world of athletics, few have been unluckier than the Waterford woman.

* * * * *

If you’re worrying about a mistake at work, console yourself with the realisation that it could be worse. In last weekend’s 24 Hours of Le Mans race, Toyota’s team of Mike Conway, Jose Maria Lopez and Kamui Kobayashi seemed bound for victory when a slow puncture was detected. Not to worry, they had enough in hand to change the offending tyre and still win.

In came the car and on went the new tyre. The only problem was the pit crew had changed the wrong tyre because the sensors on the car told them the puncture was to the front right rather than the rear left. The car limped round for a lap before coming in for its second change with the result that Toyota’s other team, headed by former Formula 1 world champion Fernando Alonso, came through to win by 16 seconds. So put your mistake into perspective. It probably wasn’t that bad.

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