By Mark Jones
Galway 1-14, Tipperary 0-15
The good days are back for Galway. Without a meaningful victory in the hurling championship since 1993, they at last put the record straight at Croke Park Sunday by beating Tipperary in the All-Ireland quarterfinal.
Relief, rather than jubilation, was the predominant emotion afterward as the Connacht county was able to contemplate a semifinal against Kilkenny. The high stakes made for a game that never hit the high spots and for a 14-minute period during the second half, neither side could manage a single score between them.
Normally, you would associate both these teams with stickcraft, but there was precious little skill on offer. For Galway, it was more a stubborn refusal to go the depressing way of previous seasons. They were rugged and unyielding, especially in defense, but Tipp didn’t exactly help themselves.
If the contest was always desperately close, Nicky English’s players hit an inordinate number of wides as usually accurate marksmen Tommy Dunne and Eugene O’Neill struggled to find the range. Equally, the loss of John Leahy through injury five minutes after the interval was a massive blow, coming as it did after the first-half departure of Eamonn Corcorcan.
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Leahy, Tipp’s talisman for so much of the championship, had already begun to make an impact with a couple of vital points to counteract Galway’s impressive start. The Westerners were much faster out of the traps as Ollie Canning and Ollie Fahy troubled the Tipperary defense, while Eugene Cloonan was picking off the scores with his accuracy.
In the 14th minute, Galway won a free 25 yards out from the goal and everyone in the crowd of 43,000 expected Cloonan to tap the ball over the bar for a routine point, but with impressive confidence, he smashed his shot into the roof of the net and suddenly it was 1-5 to 0-2.
"We got a bad start all right," said English. "Maybe Galway were that little bit fresher." Whatever about that disappointing opening, Tipp eventually knuckled down to the task as Leahy came into the game and Eddie Enright, Mark O’Leary and O’Neill all picked off points to level the scores. However, Rory Gantley and Alan Kerins responded in kind for Galway, and that was a portent for things to come later in the second half.
As English and the Galway manager, Mattie Murphy, were making switches from the sideline, for some reason the scoring dried up. There had been question marks over the shortening of the Croke Park pitch by three yards, as well as its uneven playing surface, and despite his team’s success, Murphy wasn’t best pleased afterward.
"Hurling counties are not used to playing on those dimensions," he said. "There are other fine grounds like Thurles where a game of this caliber could have been held. Nobody got room to breathe or to hit a ball around midfield."
However, English, wasn’t looking for excuses. "I thought there was plenty of space out there; the pitch is no excuse for losing," he said.
As the attack ground to a halt in scoring terms for a while, there were still some outstanding defensive contributions from both teams. John Carroll and Paul Ormonde were particularly impressive for the losers, while Philip Maher has marked himself out as a player to watch. And if Brian Feeney did his bit for Galway as he coped with Paul Shelley at the other end, it was the vastly experienced Joe Rabbitte who broke the deadlock with a vital point seven minutes from time.
Earlier, his high fetching had not been capitalized on by his teammates, so this time Rabbitte took it on himself to fire over a loose ball. That gave Galway a one-point cushion, and when substitute Kevin Broderick quickly added another, Tipperary were in deep trouble.
"Had Tipp broken through and got a lead point around that time, I think it would’ve killed us," Rabbitte admitted. Asked whether Tipp might have had an edge due to their three championship games already played, he wasn’t convinced. "Look, it’s all on the day no matter whether you’ve played three games, or none like us," he said.
Tipperary launched one last-ditch assault, but Galway goalkeeper Michael Crimmins made a good block from a fierce Enright cross-shot, and after three seasons in a row of failing at the quarterfinal, the Connacht champions where through.
Offaly 2-23, Derry 2-17
The Derry hurlers’ first foray out of Ulster in 92 years was supposed to end in a ritual humiliation at Croke Park, but even in defeat the underdogs stole the show in the second of last weekend’s All-Ireland quarterfinals. What was supposed to be a Sunday stroll for Offaly turned out to be nothing of the sort as Derry flew the underdog flag with real pride.
At the midpoint of the second half, Derry were level and pressing, and it took a strong finish by the overwhelming favorites to earn a six-point cushion at the end. Offaly’s manager, Pat Fleury, readily admitted that his team would have to make enormous improvements before the semifinal against Cork. "That level of performance just would not be good enough against the Munster champions. We wouldn’t be at the races if we repeated it."
Truth is, Derry were always in contention in this game despite the dire predictions of a massacre. Geoffrey McGonigle returned from suspension to rattle in two goals and the full forward line of Gary Biggs, Michael Collins and John O’Dwyer scored 0-10 among them. There were high-class performances at midfield from Ronan McCloskey and Oliver Collins, and at the back, Derry held both John Troy and Gary Hanniffy scoreless.
"We came down here to win," said manager Kevin McNaughton. "We know we are not that far away and I always thought we were win with a chance, we were hurling so well." There was the feeling throughout the first half that Offaly always had the upper hand, but once McGonigle pounced for goals in the 45th and 52nd minutes, the complexion of the contest changed.
Brian Whelahan had been left out of the starting lineup due to a hamstring strain, but he was quickly pitched into service to shore up a leaky defense, and Joe Errity was also sent into the action. Their presence had the desired effect as Derry managed only two scores in the closing stages, while Offaly had five points and a vital goal by Brendan Murphy.
"We stumbled over it, and, in fact, we’ve been stumbling all year," Johnny Pilkington said. "We’re still not moving the ball fast enough, but we’re still only 70 minutes from an All-Ireland final. We won All-Irelands before without impressive form earlier on and we know how to get there." Asked about the pending date with champions Cork, Pilkington held his hands wide. "Not a hope, sure we’re not going to bother turning up."
Derry were five points in arrears at the changeover, but they had the advantage of the breeze to come. McGonigle got the first of his goals when he latched on to Kieran McKeever’s probing delivery, and then when Stephen Byrne made a save from John O’Dwyer’s shot, McGonigle was perfectly positioned to dispatch the rebound.
"We put in a hell of a performance," said Oliver Collins, who was forced out with injury during the second half. "And remember this our first time down here. I’m certain this team will be back at this stage of the competition and go better." Not even Offaly would disagree with that.