Limerick’s Conor Boylan, left, in action with Cathal Malone of Clare. INPHO/JAMES CROMBIE

Limerick meet match, almost

Limerick 1-29; Clare 0-29

If ever the description “first among equals” applied to two teams, then the protagonists in this Munster SH final fitted the bill to a tee.

It was a pity there had to be a loser as for long tracts of ordinary time and time added on after the 70 minutes play, the losers were the better side, the more committed side and the slicker hurling side.

Semple Stadium heaved, despite the inclement weather, as the 45,000 fans created an atmosphere seldom felt – even at Munster finals.

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Brian Lohan had his boys imbued with a sense of destiny that they seemed prepared to go to hell and back to lift the new Mick Mackey cup. Even Limerick, the team of all the talents, took more back and side steps in his game than they have over the past four years. And yes they were still missing Cian Lynch, whose influence cannot be underestimated. He has a knack of not only firing over important scores himself, but getting the best out of the attack around him. Clearly the likes of Aaron Gillane and Tom Morrissey and even Gearóid Hegarty would love to see him back after suffering a severe hamstring injury.

One man rejuvenated in that division despite his absence is Seamus Flanagan who was the go-to man on the day and ended up scoring eight points from play in a display that must have had Manager John Kiely thanking his lucky stars.

Without him Limerick would be facing a journey through the back door. It was unlucky for Lohan’s rangers that they were deprived of a shock victory on the day because of the full-forwards tour de force over the 90 minutes of regulation and extra time.

There was so much to admire from Clare, from the first whistle when they swarmed around every Limerick man in possession to Tony Kelly’s divine equaliser in added time to force extra time. 

Afterwards Flanagan himself best summed up the encounter when he declared it was “a game for the ages.”

Speaking to RTE after the presentation of the Mick Mackey Cup to his side, he said: “Clare put it up to us all the way but all I can say is taking us to extra-time, everything that happened there it was incredible to be involved in. An incredible game and one that will be remembered for the ages. Across the board, you could have picked out 15 fellas in each team that played absolutely unbelievable stuff. We were delighted and thank God we came out on top.”

It was Limerick’s fourth provincial title in a row, but  boy, were they pushed to the pin of their collar to complete it by a Clare side thirsting for their first provincial crown in 24 years.

After bossing the opening 20 minutes,  Hegarty’s sublime solo run ended with a great goal and with Kelly contributing handsomely it was 1-11 to 0-14 at the break.

All through the second half, it was level or a one-point game right up to injury time and when skipper Declan Hannon drove a point over  from the next parish to give Limerick the lead again, it looked certain that would see them home.

However Clare talisman Kelly, who has scored 0-12 (six from play) by then,  showed his mettle and genius when stepping up to an acute sideline which he struck over the black spot in a high-drama ending to what was an outstanding contest.

In the final 20 extra minutes, it was Limerick who had the fresher legs as they outscored Clare three points to one in the opening period. 

Flanagan made it a red letter day for himself when he landed his eighth point and this was augmented with similar scores from impressive sub Conor Boylan and midfielder Willie O’Donoghue which pushed them four to the good.

Clare sub Mark Rodgers looked lively in his short time on the field and nearly raised a green flag only to see his shot deflected over the crossbar.

Limerick can now use the month to the semi-final date in early July to further improve as they face one of the following three Cork, Galway or Antrim in that game.

It will be a case of no rest for the wicked as Clare must hope the likes of Kelly recover quickly from injury as they face up to a quarter-final against Wexford or Kerry the weekend after next

Cats lord it over Galway

Kilkenny 0-22; Galway 0-17

“Revenge is mine” said the Lord… and Brian Cody. You just knew that as sure as apples are apples and Cats are Cats, that following their controversial one point loss in the round robin stage at Pearse Stadium (and all that jazz about the handshake after the game with opposing manager Henry Shefflin), the old warhorse Cody would have the last laugh.

If not exactly laugh, then what was striking was how animated he was after this thoroughly deserved five-point victory over his former star pupil’s outfit as he sauntered around the Croke Park pitch following the final whistle smiling broadly and embracing his charges unlike I’ve ever seen previously.  Clearly this win meant more than any in the recent past to him.

Truth is Cody sent out his players with a defiance in their demeanour never to take a back step and it was evident long before the final whistle that Galway could be there until the middle of the next week and they wouldn’t have beaten this Kilkenny side.

“To be Leinster champions is terrific honor and something we want to achieve and also you get to the All-Ireland semi-final. So it's always relief and you're always just very happy when you win. But also I'd be very, very proud of the complete attitude of the players throughout the game from start to finish.

"They applied themselves magnificently, they were a real team from the whole point of view of attitude, spirit, honesty and workrate and they're the things you build on and that was top class."

Like Limerick, the other provincial champions, Kilkenny now have a month off to recover and regroup as they go straight into the All-Ireland semi-final on  July 2. There is no such luxury for the beaten Galway who must now seek to get back in via the backdoor method.

After defeats to both Galway and Wexford, Cody demanded and got an improved performance from his squad at Croke Park on Saturday evening.

“It's essential you improve. That's the nature of championships. What won a Leinster final for us won’t win an All-Ireland semi-final for us. We've discovered that the last two years and in other years as well,” he emphasized.

“So that's the challenge now ahead of us to try and go that extra step,” he added.

All the brouhaha over the second “handshake” with Shefflin proved a damp squib as neither man sought out the other in the traditional way on the final whistle. Instead about ten minutes after the game was over and the presentation made, they met on the pitch, exchanged a few words, and went on their separate ways.

In the game it was Adrian Mullen who was the star man  as his county sealed a three-in-a-row.

He hit 0-4 from play while Galway only had Conor Whelan firing on all cylinders as a score getter and target man. Otherwise it was a disappointing day at the office, something this talented Galway team have consistently produced and underwhelmed us all looking in.

TJ Reid  isn’t the TJ Reid of old but he hit 12 points from placed balls. However unless he finds his goal scoring touch, it is hard to see Kilkenny progressing much further as the standard in Leinster is quite obviously not up to the pitch in Munster these days. Still with Cody on the sideline and the black and amber jersey causing fear, you can never write off Kilkenny.

Armagh dethrone 

champions Tyrone 

Armagh 1-16; Tyrone 1-10

Adios All-Ireland champions Tyrone. Welcome back to the big time Armagh. And their reward for a thoroughly deserved victory over one big boy from Ulster is a draw against another, Donegal in the second round of the qualifier. For sure if Armagh are going to win anything, they are going to have to beat the  top teams this summer and having suffered a heavy loss in Ballybofey, this second round qualifier game offers them a chance of revenge and redemption.

Still in the race for Sam Maguire, they were worth every bit of their six points win over The Red Hand county at the Athletic Grounds on Sunday and on the evidence of that performance will provide a real test for Donegal, who are still smarting after losing to Derry in the Ulster Final two weeks ago.

Kieran McGeeney body of work over eight years is paying dividends at last and with Kerry’s Kieran Donaghy coaching the Orchard County, there is a wonderful mix of the long and short game which means they are hard to predict and play against.

As Co-Manager Brian Dooher admitted afterwards, Tyrone never really got going either through the season or on the day on Sunday, even when they were given the tonic of an early goal to settle them.

Instead, with Stefan Campbell starting for once instead of coming on as an impact sub, Armagh ran with directness and speed at the Tyrone defence who were unable to cope with the angled running and accuracy of their opponents. Campbell’s performance was top drawer and led to him gaining the man of the match award as he orchestrated the pursuit of scoring bursts to great affect both for himself and his colleagues.

Another real gem in their line-up was goalkeeper Ethan Rafferty. The 6ft 4in netminder often became an attacker as he joined the outfield play and ended up scoring two magnificent points from play – something I can’t ever remember a goalkeeper doing in all my time watching Gaelic games.

A packed stadium of 16,292 in Armagh city recovered from Conor McKenna’s early strike after just three minutes to dominate the rest of the game with Aidan Nugent a revelation by constantly winning possession and scoring a brilliant individual goal and a first half point to settle his teammates.

When Jason Duffy added a point the home team were three to the good and Footballer of the Year Kieran McGeary was introduced to tighten up a visiting defence that was leaking like a sieve.

Only the opportunism of Darren McCurry, with three points, and Peter Harte finding the target from distance, kept them in the hunt at 1-6 to 1-5 at the short whistle.

The restart saw Armagh re-establish their supremacy as Rian O’Neill and Rory Grugan raised white flag and Tyrone were bailing water when recently arrived sub Richie Donnelly picked up a black card.

Rian O’Neill slotted over another free but Armagh couldn’t take as much advantage of their numerical supremacy as was expected on the scoreboard.

However with Tyrone having to chase the game, space began to appear even more at the back and Rafferty was one to rifle over a great score with Campbell and O’Neill also adjusting their radar to give the home side a comfortable six point lead.

Richie Donnelly, Darren McCurry and Conn Kilpatrick raised flags for the Sam Maguire holders but their grip on that crowning was slipping rapidly, as Campbell and Andrew Murnin lashed  over points late on to secure a famous victory.

Football qualifier Round 2 draw

Roscommon v Clare

Limerick v Cork

Kildare v Mayo

Donegal v Armagh

Ties to be played next weekend at neutral venues.

Glimpses of real NY potential 

On the face of it, this looks like a wasted journey for New York  to taste championship fare in Ireland for the first time in 21 years. However, while they were well beaten both on the field of play and the scoreboard, there were many positives to take away from this encounter at O’Connor Park, Tullamore on a sunny Saturday afternoon.

In the company of former Offaly All Ireland goal-scoring hero Seamus Darby at the game, he was quick to point out to me that New York’s movement was very good when they got  the chance to hold onto possession while the visitors points kicking, again when they had the ball for a little bit of time, was actually superior, especially in the first half, to their hosts.

We must also factor in that the NY team was missing some of its stronger players for various reasons while arriving in Ireland two days before a big match and expecting to hit the ground running was probably too much to expect.

 GAA President Larry McCarthy was in the ground early to welcome the squad from his old stomping ground and hopefully he and his GAA hierarchy won’t be put off the experiment of having them back next year. 

New York will have learnt a lot from this encounter against a team which played Division Two football and were unlucky to be relegated. John Maughan’s team have played together in 15 meaningful cup, league and  championship games in the past season while their opponents only played Sligo once in the Connacht championship.  

Clearly then, there is  a huge disparity in preparation, teamwork and understanding of patterns of play …and  that ultimately was the visiting team’s Achilles heel.

The New York boys were good footballers and fit for purpose and kept going to the end. They are talented – it’s just that they are not championship sharp and nor should we expect them to be.

In other words they were as good as circumstances allowed them to be. Darby, whose never to be forgotten goal deprived Kerry of the five-in-a-row back in 1982,  believed  if New York came home for two weeks and played three games, they would be a much better equipped team by the end of the third game. And if they did this for a number of years, they would be capable of winning and progressing.

“They surprised me how good they were with their slick passing and their ability to kick scores. What they weren’t used to was the speed required for transition from defence to attack and more importantly getting back in numbers when they lost the ball. 

“That only comes with experience and having more than one match would bring them on in leaps and bounds,” he stressed. 

Another aspect where there was a marked difference was Offaly’s discipline and strength in the tackle. They turned their opponents over time and again while ensuring that, unlike the New York players, they didn’t give away easy frees.

Offaly now go forward after wins over Wexford, Wicklow and New York to the semi-final in Croke Park against neighbors Westmeath and will be hopeful they can at least get to the final. The visitors need to accept that their 12-point losing margin did not reflect what they are capable of.

Tailteann Cup draw semi-finals

Westmeath v Offaly

Sligo v Cavan

Games to be played at Croke Park on Sunday week June 19, live on RTÉ2 and RTÉ Player.

Ref: M  McNally (Monaghan).