By Sean Creedon
DUBLIN – At this stage of the year, few people are thinking of the All-Ireland football final, but already favors are probably being done around the country in the knowledge that the favor might be returned in the form of a final ticket come next September.
For the players from some of the so-called “weaker counties,” the action begins and ends on Sunday, the first in May. Sadly, until the association introduces an open draw or provide some sort of a back-door chance like they did in hurling last year, it’s always going to be a long summer for the teams knocked out in the early stages.
First into action this year are Westmeath and Carlow, who meet in Mullingar, and Longford, who travel to play Wexford in Enniscorthy. Wexford, immersed in their 1798 celebrations would like to do well this year, but they will probably have to depend on their hurlers for success. The other game pits Westmeath, who were unlucky to lose to eventual Leinster champions Offaly in the first round last year against Carlow.
Former Offaly star Brendan Lowry is now in charge and they should be too good for a Carlow side, who are only just getting themselves together after a player’s strike during the winter.
The only consolation for the players from the weaker counties is the possibility of gaining a place on the Irish team. In the past, players like Michael “Spike” Fagan, from Westmeath, and Willie Doyle of Carlow have made the Irish team for Compromise Rules games against Australia. The good news for the players is that the union with Australia is back on. The Aussies senior team will play two tests in Ireland on Oct. 10 and 18 this year. An Irish junior team will travel to Australia at Easter and a senior team in the autumn. Australia will return to Ireland in the year 2,000, with the Irish going back down under in 2001.
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HURLING SEMIS Unlike the Irish Rugby Football Union, who insisted on bringing two Limerick teams to Dublin to play the final of the All-Ireland League, the GAA are being more pragmatic. They have fixed Semple Stadium, Thurles, as the venue for the two All-Munster National Hurling League semifinals on Sunday.
Reigning League champions Limerick will play Waterford, who have really impressed under former Cork star Gerald McCarthy. And it also looks like Gerald’s former colleague Jimmy Barry Murphy is finally getting a settled team together in Cork. The Rebels are unlikely to topple All-Ireland champions Clare in the other semi-final. At this stage it seems certain that the final on May 17 will also be played in Thurles.
RUGGER SIGNS Former Irish Rugby international Willie Anderson has signed a three-year contract as director of rugby with Dungannon. He returned to the club seven weeks ago on a temporary coaching basis after he was sacked by London Irish.
CLARE INK THERAPIST The management of the Clare hurling team have recruited the services of Olympic physiotherapist Gerard Hartman in preparation for the defense of their All-Ireland title. Hartman, who has a sports injury clinic in Limerick, has in the past worked closely with Sonia O’Sullivan and the Irish Olympic team. Hartman left Limerick 20 years ago to take an athletics scholarship at McNeese University and later switched to Arkansas before he began to concentrate on the triathlon, winning seven national titles. Before returning to Limerick last year, he was attached to the Florida Sports Medical Center.
DUBLIN-CATS LIVE The Dublin-Kilkenny first round Leinster Hurling Championship game will now be played at Parnell Park on Saturday, May 30. The reason for the change is to facilitate RTE, who will now show the game live.
TIPP SIGN HAYES Former Tipperary star Joe Hayes has a new job. Joe, a garda in Monaghan, has taken over as manager of the Monaghan Camogie team. Last year he was player-manager of the Monaghan senior hurlers.