It was a day of double deadlock at Croke Park as minors and seniors sang from the same hymn sheet. Tension and drama galore at headquarters as first Dublin and then Kilkenny secured late rescuing frees. Favouritism counted for nothing in either case. It’s back to the proverbial drawing board then for all four counties as they refocus for a September 30 reprise.

In the meantime the club scene hereabouts has a busy upcoming weekend with a pair of double-deckers scheduled for Cashel on Saturday and Nenagh on the Sabbath. Thereafter we should be ready for quarter-finals.

No speeches and no victory banquets, it was all very anti-climatic at the end as indecision prevailed on hurling’s biggest day. Draws in the finals of either code are rare, so to hit two on the same day was quite extraordinary. Unique? Probably, which is my lazy way of admitting that I haven’t the enthusiasm to go trawling the record books. I’m sure someone else will oblige.

Our minors disappointed. Given lavish reviews in advance they were second to Dublin in the basic requirements of energy and drive, especially in the opening half. We were fortunate indeed to be only three adrift at half time, thanks to the free-taking excellence of John McGrath. Not scoring from play in that spell told a tale though Dublin were left to rue the free-count as well as that puck-out lapse which set up the penalty through Mark McCarthy’s dash for goal. John McGrath did what Shefflin avoided in the senior game.

The Dubs were definitely the more forceful lot in that opening half hitting points from a variety of sources with dual-player, Costello, ramming home the goal. They were coming strongly to the play, winning in the air and hunting down opponents with enthusiasm. By contrast we looked more stand-offish, expecting things to happen rather than being proactive in the cause. We looked like a side that believed the pre-match hype and expected to win. Hopefully they’ll have learned that favouritism doesn’t win All Irelands – getting down and dirty does.

In fairness to management and players there was a noticeable transformation for the second half. It was as if the realisation dawned that hurling is a battle of wills as much as of skill and players now started taking responsibility to chase down the game. We got an immediate fillip on resuming when Mark McCarthy slipped by his marker to plant an excellent goal. That came after points from John McGrath and Sean Maher so despite playing poorly we found ourselves two-up within five minutes of resuming.

In hindsight that opening blast at the start of the second half was crucial. Had Dublin slipped five or six points ahead their confidence would have soared and I doubt if we’d have been able to rein them in. Getting ahead was important though staying there remained difficult for the duration of that second half. We could never push into the comfort zone being still so heavily reliant on John McGrath’s frees.

In the end it came down to a very nervous conclusion. Two-up with a few minutes to play we couldn’t hold the line. The equalising free was a ridiculously harsh call on Thomas Hamill by a referee who was very technical all day. I’ve no doubt you could pick fifty and more incidents at Croke Park on Sunday where players took more steps that the Tipp centre back and no whistle was heard; the temptation to go for a leveller just proved irresistible.

Overall, though, we hardly deserved to win. A team that doesn’t score from play in the first half and manages a mere 1-2 in the second hardly deserves to be crowned All Ireland champions. The fortunate aspect is that the lads have a chance in the replay to bring an entirely different mindset; next time they’ll need to be up for the match in earnest. Willie Maher has some work to do in order to readjust the collective focus of this side.

Refocusing will be the agenda for Kilkenny and Galway too after that thrilling senior final. I’ve no doubt the purists will find fault with some of the hurling but for sheer edge-of-the-seat tension you won’t find better entertainment on a hurling pitch.

Galway won the first half, Kilkenny the second, and by Sunday evening the old cliché about draws being the fairest result was flogged to death. Given the ups and downs of this contest, however, there was surely a type of poetic justice in the final outcome. With neither winners nor losers it all goes back to another day and another argument.

Galway brought their ‘A’ game to the first half. Against untypically nervous opposition they pulled most of the strings in that period. Canning’s smashing goal had an echo from the Leinster final and they were doing well all over the park. The defence was miserly, Tannian the dominant presence at midfield and Canning leading the attack where Niall Burke was dominating Brian Hogan. In hindsight they should have been further ahead at half time having spilled a few easy frees to Shefflin in the lead-in to the interval.

Galway, however, will worry about their second half slippage. With Shefflin now on the ‘forty’ in defiant mood and Brian Hogan re-establishing a power base at half back Galway’s game plan suffered. Besides with Canning losing influence there was little happening in the Galway attack. They could be grateful for the ‘break’ which let Burke in for that goal against the trend of play, not to mention that spectacular save by Skehill. On another day those two incidents could represent a six-point turnover.

Shefflin was magnificent in that second half. Singlehandedly he dragged Kilkenny back into this contest with an almost manic passion. On a day when so many of the other Kilkenny forwards blinked it was King Henry who refused to flinch. And when the debate rages about whether or not he’s the greatest hurler of all time I’ve no doubt that second half will be cited in the book of evidence.

Should he have gone for broke on that penalty? I think he took the wisest option. If they were a few points adrift or if it was earlier in the game I’ve no doubt he’d have gone for it but given the time and the score at that juncture the certainty of the point was preferable.

The arguments will also rage about the equalising free at the end but for me there’s little to dispute. It wasn’t a shoulder-to-shoulder tackle and in the circumstances of this game almost every referee would have blown for a foul.

In fact – and this is new territory for me – I thought Barry Kelly was superb on Sunday. I have in the past cringed at some of his refereeing of Tipperary games but this was definitely a career best. There was a fear in advance that he’d be influenced by Cody’s antics in the lead up to the game but he clearly rose above the comments of the Kilkenny manager and gave a masterly display. His replacement for the replay will have a tough act to follow.

Ahead of the replay now it’s all down to which side draws most inspiration from the draw. Galway were definitely the luckier ones to escape this time but the experience of the big day will surely stand to them. They need to keep Joe Canning more centrally involved; apart from the frees he was a peripheral character in the second half, though showing fantastic nerve to ‘nail’ that last free. They definitely lost their way in that second period, however, and will need to rediscover the path for the rematch. Their management too will face some scrutiny; replacing Niall Burke and Damien Hayes were questionable moves and the in-out experience of Joe Cooney’s son was a wasted option.

For Kilkenny it’s back to the well once more with some evidence that the supply is running low. Incredibly Matt Ruth’s introduction for the final seven minutes or so was their only substitution on a day when several players, especially in attack, misfired. Does that suggest that there was little confidence in the stand-by material? In the past they’d have had T.J. Reid, Eddie Brennan et al to call upon but nowadays things are tighter with Michael Rice out injured.

Still it was the champions who looked the more likely winners in that second period so let’s not start counting them out just yet. An intriguing replay is in prospect.

Finally it’s back to local affairs this weekend as we hit the business end of the domestic championship. There are twelve still standing in the race for Dan Breen but the number should drop to eight after a quartet of ties this Saturday and Sunday.

Cashel houses an interesting double header on Saturday, one that features all four divisions. West runners up, Eire Og, will face Borrisoleigh in the opening bout with South and Mid clashing in the second game through Swans and Drom\Inch.

As reigning county champions, Drom are on a recovery mission following their spectacular exit from the Mid series. In fact the Mid championship was a strange affair this year with Loughmore walloping Drom and then copping a similar fate themselves at the hands of Sarsfields. Since their exit Drom have refocused and one suspects will have a say in matters before the year is out though that horrible injury sustained by David Collins has been a major drawback.

For Swans and Eire Og there was the disappointment of losing their divisional finals and one wonders now how much appetite they have for an extended run in the county series. On the other hand Borrisoleigh are one of those enigmatic clubs at times flattering to deceive so you never quite know where they stand in the hurling hierarchy of the county.

Sunday’s double header at Nenagh sees an all-North clash with Toomevara and Kildangan while Loughmore face Roscrea in the second tie. The ‘greyhounds’ have been the dominant club of the past two decades though at this stage they’d be seen as a side in decline. That was certainly evident in their North final defeat by Portroe though whether or not they’ve declined enough for Kildangan to progress is the question.

Loughmore must still be smarting from that Mid final pasting by goal-hungry Sarsfields. No doubt there was a freakish element to Pa Bourke’s six goal blast and this is their chance now to get back on the wagon. Their Mid form has been confusing though I’d still expect a kick-back from a team that many rate among the top five or six in the county. For Roscrea I suspect this is bonus territory; they nudged past Lorrha in the last round by a single point.

So there’s no shortage of action at the weekend. The four divisional champions await the winners in the quarter finals. Who’ll emerge? How about Borrisoleigh, Drom, Toome’ and Loughmore for an accumulator –  but don’t blame me if the bookie has the final laugh.

And just as I’m about to sign off on this week’s column there’s breaking news of the quarter-final pairings for games which are scheduled to be played under lights on Saturday and Sunday week. On the Saturday bill of fare Mullinahone will face either Loughmore or Roscrea while Clonoulty square up to either Drom or Swans. Then on Sunday evening it’s the turn of Sarsfields against either Toome’ or Kildangan and Portroe versus Borrisoleigh or Eire Og. Liam Sheedy will be pleased with that draw.

The semi-finals are planned for October 7 with the final the following week. The reason for all this haste is a Munster deadline of October 28 for our senior and intermediate champions.




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