By Mark Jones
Tipperary 0-17, Waterford 0-14
The All-Ireland hurling championship got down to real business last Sunday when Tipperary doused Waterford’s dreams of a summer run in the first round of the Munster championship at Pairc Ui Chaoimh. If there was plenty to admire about the collective efforts of Nicky English’s players, John Leahy emerged from the hustle and bustle to deliver a majestic performance.
Having won his first All-Ireland all of 11 championship seasons ago, the 30-year-old Leahy may have thought at more than one stage that his career was on the rocks, but there was no sign of burnout as he inspired Tipp with a burst of early scoring. Roving from wing forward, via midfield to a play-anywhere commission, he smashed over three brilliant first-half points and then continued to plague Waterford with his industry and precision.
And Tipp needed Leahy to be on fire. After tinkering with his defense for the past couple of months, manager English finally got the mix right as Michael Ryan, John Carroll and David Kennedy warmed to the task. However, the winners’ forward line never hit the high spots, shooting 19 wides.
Still, Tipp invariably held the upper hand and the margin that sent them through to a mouth-watering semifinal clash with Clare could easily have been more than three points. Waterford grafted to stay in the contest, but a cruel injury to the talented Ken McGrath cost them dear. McGrath had begun in stunning fashion with three points in the space of 28 minutes when he injured his ankle and eventually limped out of the action midway through the second half.
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"Yes, that was a blow all right," said Waterford’s manager, Gerald McCarthy, "but there are no excuses and no scapegoats. I know you’re anxious to know about the future of Waterford hurling but I’ll be first communicating with the people that matter most, the county board."
Despite McGrath’s injury, McCarthy will be well aware that the rest of his forwards should have done better. Paul Flynn, Dan Shanahan and Dave Bennett all had their moments, but neither they nor Tony Browne in midfield ever seriously threatened Tipp’s supremacy.
With the breeze at their backs, Tipperary had pulled five points clear, 0-11 to 0-6, at the interval, but as English pointed out, the elements were never going to make a major difference.
"I didn’t mind the wind at all," he said. "The way hurling is at the moment, you’re less closed up and less bunched against a breeze. What you’re trying to do is open up space."
Predictably enough, a second-half Waterford onslaught never materialized. Bennett and Flynn were off target with two free chances and by the 51st minute, Tipp had stretched their lead to six points. With Leahy working tigerishly in defense now, the winners were able to stave off a goal chance for Shanahan.
"It was a bit scary at that stage," English conceded, but even when Peter Queally surged upfield to cut the lead to three, there was still the belief that Tipp would hold on.
Despite McCarthy’s discretion, this was probably his last game in charge of Waterford who now have to wait another eight months for a decent competitive fixture.
"If there’s going to be a burial, we’ll take a few days to organize it," he said. As for Tipperary, they can look ahead to a confrontation against Clare.
Laois 0-18, Dublin 0-18
The winner of this Leinster hurling championship round robin game was to have booked a quarterfinal date with Kilkenny and for long periods at Nowlan Park last Sunday, that winner looked certain to be Laois. But after trailing by six points at half-time, Dublin staged a gutsy second-half recovery to earn a share of the spoils.
The draw now means that the two counties will have to meet again on Monday and Dublin’s manager, Michael O’Grady, was relishing the prospect.
"It gives us a fourth championship game and I can’t remember the last time that Dublin played four games in Leinster," he said. "It’s what we want, it’s great for both Dublin and Laois and because of this round-robin system, whoever wins will be better prepared playing Kilkenny."
Dublin looked to be well out of the running by the interval even against Laois’ limited potential. Paul Cuddy and Niall Rigney were controlling affairs for the midland county in the middle of the pitch and further forward, Cuddy’s twin brother David was in superb scoring form with eight points before the break.
But Dublin weren’t finished and substitute Ger Ennis inspired the fightback with some fast, direct hurling. With a quarter of an hour remaining, O’Grady’s charges had edged in front as Thomas McGrane hit the target with a couple of frees. Laois rallied despite some wayward shooting to take the lead again, but Sean Duignan found the range just before full-time to earn the draw.
Cork 2-32, Kerry 0-4
Kerry’s future in Munster championship hurling hung in the balance after this farcical first-round massacre at Killarney. This non-contest served merely as a tuneup for Cork, who meet Limerick on Sunday and despite a reasonable start, Kerry were humiliated during the second half.
"Nobody takes pleasure in hammering a team like that," said the All-Ireland champions manager, Jimmy Barry-Murphy. "For us it was something to get over and done with."
Benny Murray fired in a remarkable five goals as Meath overwhelmed Carlow by 5-14 to 2-10 to clinch the National Hurling League Division 2 title at Mullingar. Meath now face Kerry in a playoff to decide who will compete in Division 1 next year.
Meanwhile, Louth staged a comeback to win the Division Three title with a 0-16 to 1-11 verdict over Longford and they now meet Tyrone, the bottom team in Division 2, in a promotion/relegation playoff.
Antrim 0-13, Down 1-7
There was only one championship football game last weekend, but what a game it was for Antrim. Without a win in Ulster for 18 years, the underdogs bucked a long standing trend to pull off a sensational first-round success over Down at Casement Park.
Even if there had been whispers that the Down camp was not in the best of shape, this was still an outstanding achievement by manager Brian White and his players. Goalkeeper Sean McGreevy was in brilliant form, saving several goalbound shots, including a Gregory McCartan penalty, and Sheeny McQuillan dominated the midfield exchanges.
McCartan managed to convert a penalty during the first half when Mal McMurray was dragged down, but Antrim were still level at the break.
"Well, it’s one thing to be confident, but you have to believe in yourself as well," said a delighted White afterwards, and his team certainly oozed self-belief during the second-half.
McQuillan’s excellent free-taking — he finished with 0-7 — and Kevin Doyle’s third of the game saw Antrim open up a 0-11 to 1-4 advantage, and even though Down brought in James McCartan and Brendan Coulter off the bench, McGreevy’s saves dramatically booked his side a place in the semi-final against provincial favorites Derry.