By Mark Jones
Galway 2-15 Waterford 1-15
With no Connacht championship worth bragging about, Galway have always been prepared to sweat blood for the National Hurling League, and they duly qualified for the final of the competition with a deserved victory over Waterford in last Sunday’s semifinal at Thurles.
A fourth decider in five seasons is proof enough of Galway’s desire to embrace the league, yet for much of the opening half they found it difficult to settle. Tentative and tense, the Westerners struggled to come to grips with the Waterford attack, but on the back of two quick goals after the interval, the balance of the contest shifted dramatically.
Fergal Healy and Ollie Fahy fired in the vital goals and suddenly, Galway were playing with the sort of style and brio that makes them look live All-Ireland contenders.
"This win is a huge bonus," said manager Mattie Murphy. "We would’ve been very disappointed not to make the final. We were tense at first, but eventually we began to use the ball intelligently."
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Murphy won’t have been too surprised by the pace and enthusiasm exhibited by the likes of Healy and Fahy in attack. However, the performance of his defense, in which Vinnie Maher and Liam Hodgins were outstanding, came as a bonus.
That said, the outome was far from certain as Waterford made life difficult for their opponents in the early stages. Despite the inventive work from Galway’s front line, Tom Feeney and Brian O’Connor appeared to be gaining the upper hand as halftime approached.
A superbly taken goal by Michael White boosted the Munster team’s morale. A quarter of an hour had gone when Ken McGrath, Anthony Kirwan and Paul Flynn combined sweetly to create the opportunity for White. That leveled the scores at 0-5 to 1-2 and with McGrath in excellent form, Waterford were only a single point adrift at half-time after playing into a stiff breeze.
But the normally reliable Flynn, who appeared to be carrying an injury, was subdued and Galway took up the challenge in the second half with some direct hurling. Joe Rabbitte sent Fahy on his way for the first goal before Healy burst clear to kick home the second.
"I think those goals were the killer factor," said a disappointed Waterford manager, Gerald McCarthy. "We had two very good chances during the first half and we couldn’t convert them, that was really where the game changed. We were aware of their pace, but we lost our concentration when it mattered."
Galway now prepare for the final on May 14 and no matter what happens, they then have a Connacht final to look forward to in July. Waterford, meanwhile, clash with Tipperary in the Munster championship later this month. Their season could be over in the space of a couple of weeks.
Tipperary 2-18, Limerick 0-17
Nicky English mightn’t have been happy, but his team had made it to the league final without too much. It seems that the Tipperary manager has one eye on this competition and the other on the championship.
"I feel the league is too close to the championship," he said, beating a now familiar drum. "It’s a worthwhile competition, but it’s being throttled by the championship. It should be brought forward a few weeks."
English may have been frustrated more by what was a bloodless contest.
Eamonn Cregan’s young Limerick side battled gamely, but Tipp didn’t have to hit top gear to secure the victory.
"If Tipp picked their noses," said Cregan, "they would’ve done it the right way."
It was all too routine for the Thurles crowd, many of whom had drifted off before the end. Once Mark O’Leary fired in a goal in the 20th minute, Limerick were up against it. They proceeded to shoot nine wides while playing into the breeze as the winners’ defense of Liam Sheedy, Philip Maher and Michael Ryan assumed control.
Even if English admitted that his team won "without being impressive," there was a bonus following the withdrawal through injury of Declan Ryan. His replacement, the veteran John Leahy, performed brilliantly first at center forward and later on the wing. As well as scoring 1-2, Leahy has now staked a strong claim for inclusion from the start.
On the downside, midfielder Andy Moloney was taken to hospital with an eye injury which surely rules out his chances of playing in Sunday week’s final against Galway.
Tommy Dunne hit eight points for the winners, while Mark Keane top scored for Limerick with 0-7.
"Forwards have to win the ball and backs have to clear effectively," Cregan said. "We didn’t do either. We had loads of chances to put the ball over the bar and we didn’t take them."
So a chastened Limerick regroup for the championship, while Tipp and English continue to juggle two balls.
Derry retained their National Hurling League Division One status when they beat Kerry 1-21 to 2-4 in a playoff at Parnell Park last weekend, and in Division Two, leaders Meath kept up their push for promotion with a 1-14 to 0-12 win over Wicklow.
Ahead only on scoring average, Meath are still being challenged by Carlow, who were hard pushed to beat Dublin by 2-13 to 2-10. Westmeath remain in third place after a 3-13 to 2-9 win over Down, while Roscommon crushed Tyrone, 5-12 to 1-9.
Longford clinched a place in the Division Three playoff against Louth, following their 2-17 to 1-16 triumph over Mayo. Sligo beat Donegal, Monaghan got the better of Cavan and Fermanagh were too strong for Leitrim.
Impressive Tyrone qualified to meet Limerick in the All Ireland Under 21 football final when they surged to a 1-10 to 0-6 victory over Galway in the semifinal at Carrick-on-Shannon. Earlier in the week, Limerick had surprised Westmeath on a scoreline of 1-8 to 1-6 to book a place in the under 21 decider for the first time.