NO one can doubt the right of Kerry, Mayo, Down or Cork to feature in this weekend’s National Football League Division One semi-finals.
All four, after all, have beaten All-Ireland champions Dublin during their Division One campaign. Defending league champions Cork became the latest to do so at Pairc Ui Chaoimh last Sunday, winning by 1-12 to 0-12.
The victory earned them a semi-final clash with Down while Kerry will take on Mayo in the other semi-final. Dublin had to be satisfied with fifth spot in the table after winning three and losing four of their seven games.
It’s far from ideal in that the knock-out stages of the National League provide invaluable preparation for the All-Ireland campaign. But Dublin can have few complaints.
Manager Pat Gilroy commented: “It’s disappointing to miss out on the semi-finals but there were some pluses too. We played a hell of a lot better than last week.
“But it’s our own fault. We should have been able to get two points from the last two games.”
To be fair, Dublin haven’t always been able to call on their best players but the opportunity was still there. For instance, they had no fewer than 14 wides in Sunday’s defeat by Cork.
Effectively, the match was decided in the opening 19 minutes when Cork established a 1-5 to 0-1 lead. Dublin will also feel they conceded a soft goal when Aidan Walsh got the slightest of touches to a long delivery from Fintan Gould and the ball eluded Michael Savage in the Dublin goal.
At that stage, Cork were well on top but Dublin did manage a rally. By half-time they had reduced the lead to 1-8 to 0-5 and four subsequent unanswered points shortly after the break made it 1-8 to 0-9.
Eventually, however, Cork regained their composure with a Colm O’Neill point and they held on for victory. Manager Conor Counihan, ever the pragmatist, wasn’t about to get carried away.
He said: “We have a lot of improving to do before we meet Down in the semi-final. Today was a case of job done, that’s as much as you could say about it.”
Walsh (1-1) and O’Neill (0-4, two from frees) emerged as Cork’s top scorers. Diarmuid Connolly was Dublin’s top marksman with 0-5, two from frees, but he was also guilty of shooting six wides.
Down secured their semi-final place with a 2-11 to 0-10 away success over relegated Laois. The home side had sufficient possession to have secure a valuable victory but Down were far more clinical in terms of how they used their possession.
Conor Laverty and Benny Coulter scored a goal in each half. “They were the difference” admitted Down manager James McCartan.
Kerry, meanwhile, had to depend on an injury-time free from Bryan Sheehan to earn a 1-12 to 1-12 draw with Mayo in Tralee. Indeed, at one stage Mayo had an eight point lead. So, this was definitely a match they could very easily have won. That said, no one in either camp is going to complain too much.
Kerry brought some of their big guns off the bench to help turn matters around. But the key man was undoubtedly Sheehan in that he converted a penalty after Colm Cooper was fouled and then nailed the late equalizing free to finish with 1-6..
Mayo’s task was made harder by the sending off of defender Lee Keegan for a second yellow card in the 46th minute. But they battled on well and importantly had a top class free-taker in Cillian O’Connor.
He contributed six points from the placed ball, while Jason Doherty got Mayo’s first half goal.
The fact that Mayo will have to face Kerry again in the Division One semi-final does not bother manager James Horan. He explained: “We are delighted to be getting games against good teams. Kerry are the form team in the country. They finished top of the league and are playing very well.”
Kerry boss Jack O’Connor was pleased with the way his side fought back. He said: “We started poorly and gave them an eight point lead but we did very well to come back and get the draw.”
Armagh are relegated along with Laois after losing 0-13 to 0-10 to Donegal at Ballybofey. Had Donegal lost, they would have gone down.
So, this was a very important victory, achieved without the injured Michael Murphy. They had to do it the hard way after trailing by 0-7 to 0-5 at the interval.
Colm McFadden played an important role in the comeback, contributing 0-5, but the game’s top scorer was Armagh’s Michael Stevenson who hit 0-7 from frees.
The most dramatic finish of the day was undoubtedly at Pearse Stadium where Kildare snatched an injury time draw (2-12 to 0-18) to earn promotion from Division Two, along with Tyrone. The pair will meet in the Division Two final on April 29.
Galway looked certain of the promotion spot when thee points clear three minutes into injury time. But they conceded a penalty after Emmet Bolton was fouled by Gary O’Donnell.
Up stepped John Doyle to calmly guide his shot into the corner and bring Division One football back to Kildare. It was very hard on Galway, given that they had played so well in the second half.
Tyrone topped the table by trouncing Monaghan 1-16 to 1-6. The real surprise was that Meath were relegated, along with Monaghan, after a 2-14 to 1-8 beating at the hands of arch-rivals Louth at Navan.
Meath could have no complaints. They were 1-12 to 0-3 down at the break and finished with 13 men after midfielders Brian Meade and Mark Ward were shown second yellow cards in the final quarter.
Longford and Wexford are promoted from Division Three with Offaly and Tipperary relegated. Fermanagh are promoted from Division Four, to be joined by the winners of this Sunday’s meeting of Wicklow and Kildare.
Clare back in top flight
CLARE hurlers are back in the top fl
ight after defeating Limerick 0-21 to 1-16 in Saturday’s Division One B final at the Gaelic Grounds last Saturday evening.
Not only will they be taking on the leading sides in the top division next season but they can look forward to a Division One semi-final against All-Ireland champions Kilkenny on April 22 at Semple Stadium.
All of which clearly says a lot for the management skills of Davy Fitzgerald. The Banner County had to come from eight points down in the second half to edge out their neighbours.
Fitzgerald was his usual vocal self. At one stage before half-time, he squared up to Limerick manager John Allen on the touchline.
Limerick midfielder James Ryan then charged into Fitzgerald and was shown a yellow card. On the pitch, the action was every bit as competitive with Clare overcoming a 1-14 to 0-9 deficit to snatch victory.
Conor McGrath, with 0-12, 10 of which were from frees, was the top scorer. As usual, Fitzgerald made little of his sideline problems, arguing that it motivated his players.
He said: “He (Ryan) was actually cleaning us at the time but after that we got on top in midfield. I’ve got a lot worse than that in my time.”
through to last 4
UNSURPRISINGLY, there are two Irish provinces in the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup.
The surprise is that it is Ulster, and not Munster, who have joined Leinster in the last four. They made certain of a their place with a remarkable 22-16 away quarter-final success over Munster at Thomond Park last Sunday.
Earlier, on Saturday evening, Leinster had coasted to a 34-3 quarter-final victory over Cardiff Blues at the Aviva Stadium in front of over 50,000 spectators. Their reward is a tough semi-final meeting with top French outfit Clermont Auvergne in Bordeaux on Sunday, April 29.
Ulster, for their part, have been rewarded with an Aviva Stadium semi-final against the real surprise packets of the competition Edinburgh on Saturday, April 28. The game represents a real opportunity for Ulster to make it though to the final.
Their journey to date has been made all the more newsworthy because of the decision to replace coach Brian McLaughlin with New Zealander Mark Anscombe for next season. Yet, McLaughlin is on the verge of bringing Ulster to the Heineken Cup decider.
In reality, he has already done a great job. Any coach that can bring a side to Thomond Park and turn over Munster must be doing something right.
Importantly, he has instilled real character into the Ulster team. They needed it as they defended for their lives in the second half at Thomond Park.
Virtually all of the good work was done before the interval when they establised a 19-0 by the 32nd minute. Talented young wing Craig Gilroy scored a spectacular try, albeit helped by some very poor Munster defending.
Scrum-half Ruan Pienaar’s capacity to kick penalties from inside his own half also caused problems for Munster. Pienaar landed three penalties and a conversion, while out-half Ian Humphreys put over a drop goal.
Somehow you knew that Munster were going to hit back. They did with a try from wing Simon Zebo, converted by Ronan O’Gara, and a penalty from O’Gara to make it 19-10 at half-time.
The capacity crowd of 26,000 duly awaited for Munster to complete another of their great comebacks. It never happened as Ulster dug in, defending brilliantly, to concede just two further O’Gara penalties in the second half.
Crucially, Pienaar weighed in with his fourth penalty to keep daylight between the sides. In the closing stages, Munster just could not find their way through for a match-winning score.
It was a tough defeat to take, particularly as they would have really fancied their chances against Edinburgh in the semi-final. But skipper Paul O’Connell rightly pointed out that they just didn’t do enough with their possession in the second half.
He also paid tribute to the Ulster defence, as did Munster coach Tony McGahan. “The win was well within our grasp, but Ulster were terrific all over the park and tackled back exceptionally well.” admitted McGahan.
Stephen Ferris, a doubt all week, emerged as the man of the match. Coach McLaughlin paid tribute to him and every member of his side but warned against underestimating the challenge of the Michael Bradley coached Edinburgh.
He said: “They showed what they could do by upsetting Toulouse 19-14. We know that today is the start of something but we are not there yet.”
Holders Leinster remain the side to beat following a superb first half performance against Cardiff. They were 27-3 ahead at the interval and, within six minutes of the restart, had moved 34-3 in front.
It was Leinster at their absolute best. The tries from Isa Nacewa, Brian O’Driscoll and Rob Kearney (two) were all superby worked with Jonathan Sexton pulling the strings at out-half.
The remainder of the points came from the boot of Sexton. Coach Joe Schmidt was understandably pleased but he appreciates that they face a real challenge against his former club Clermont in the semi-final.
Clermont proved their worth by defeating the last remaining English side Saracens 22-3 at Vicarage Road in the last of the quarter-finals. They include former Leinster second-row Nathan Hines in their pack.
“Yes, Nathan should have a good idea of what to expect, particularly in the line-outs. It’s a tough draw to go to France but we feel we are well prepared.” said Schmidt.