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A long day's journey into night

Sean Rice
Connacht team

Long day’s journey into night

Sean Rice

T HEY have been wrestling with the Interprovincial question for decades. New dates, new venues, new sponsors – nothing has rekindled the interest that once attracted thousands to Croke Park for the Railway Cup finals on St Patrick’s Day.
Connacht’s big win over Leinster in the semi-final of what is now known as the M Donnelly Interprovincial Championship tempted us to drive to Portlaoise on Saturday for their final with Munster. With eight Mayo men in the frame the end of a drought lasting almost four decades seemed in sight.
Not since Johnny Carey, Dermot Earley, Joe Corcoran, Willie McGee and the late John Morley last graced the team has Connacht won the series. All of 39 years ago. The expectation of victory on this occasion for once trumped the dislike of the long journey, and the intrepid John Melvin and myself succumbed to the bait.
It was a journey in vain. To be frank, nothing about the atmosphere in O’Moore Park was promising. No applause greeted the appearance of any team. The stand echoed to the muted murmur of 670 people, most of those from the surrounding area. A couple of dozen, with a dual interest, travelled from Munster. Connacht’s supporters could be counted on one hand.
Five Cork hurlers togged out with the Munster side beaten by three points by Leinster. Noteworthy, perhaps, since they have refused to turn out for their own county because of some goofy dispute with manager Gerald McCarthy. Historic, perhaps, in that we may have been among the few to witness Sean Óg O hAilpín, John Gardiner and Donal Óg Cusack finally bring the curtain down ingloriously on their county and provincial careers.
The football was only minutes old when the fruitlessness of our journey began to dawn. Munster had torn into the game as if it were an All-Ireland. They buzzed about the place, chasing every ball, supporting every attack. Connacht, in their white shirts and blue nicks were in retreat from the start.
The thing was that there were only two Kerry men on the Munster side – Tomás Ó Sé and Pádraig Reid. There were four from Limerick, two from Waterford, six from Cork and one, goalkeeper Paul Fitzgerald, from Tipperary. Not a side, surely, to stir fear into the heart of the Connacht men.
Lining out at full-back, Tom Cunniffe must have felt grateful for the absence of Michael Cussen – all six feet seven inches of him. Because of club commitments the big Cork man cried off, and the much more manageable Donncha O’Connor moved in on the Castlebar man.
But Cussen’s replacement, Alan O’Connor, was more of a handful for Ronan McGarrity and Michael Finneran in the middle of the field – until he ran out of steam and McGarrity assumed control in the second half.
At that stage Munster had gained a solid footing, and try as they did after the break, Connacht were unable to break down the defence. They lacked leadership. The man who provided that fundamental, Pádraic Joyce, in the semi-final was missing. Without Joyce Connacht were rudderless.
Before Conor Mortimer cobbled their first score, a point from a free after he was fouled, in the 16th minute, Munster had stacked up 1-4. Their goal in the 11th minute was not unexpected. David Clarke had already saved brilliantly from Daniel Goulding in the fourth minute. As their best player, he would come to Connacht’s rescue on several occasions later in the game. But there was no stopping this one.
Alan O’Connor was at the root of it, bringing half-back Tomás O’Gorman into play, and the Waterford man then took a pass from Maurice of the same name – if not of the same family – and rammed the ball home from close range.
Two Waterford men co-operating to down Connacht’s elite must have been galling. Coming from the weaker counties – and in football they don’t come a lot weaker than Waterford – the chance of an interprovincial medal would have been the height of their ambition. A prize worth the hard work.
Andy Moran and Diamuid Blake did their best to stir a Connacht reaction, but they got no further that another point, this one from Alan Dillon who, together with Moran, were best of the Connacht attack.
Conor Mortimer was unlucky to see his best effort come off an upright shortly after the resumption. A goal then was the tonic Connacht needed. Although they tried, and did bring much more balance to the game in the second half, they could not undo the damage of the first quarter.
No great appetite for International Rules
SO Ireland recovered some pride ‘down under’. Their victory over the Australians was accomplished and merited. But all the elation, all the excitement of their achievement, was confined to the written reports of those who attended the games. And there it seemed to end.
As far as this writer can detect, no new interest has been aroused among those at home who watched the games on television for the full restoration of a series that brought only shame to Croke Park when it was last staged there.
Players on both sides were models of behaviour in Perth and Melbourne for a sanitised version of what went before. One ugly incident by any player, the press told us before the start of the match in Perth, would bring an end to a fixture that has been on trial for decades.
One ugly incident did occur and it was overlooked in most of the written reports. The attack on Finian Hanley by Campbell Brown was vicious in the extreme, and the Australian received a yellow card, the only one issued in the two games.
But it did reveal the underlying frustration felt by the Ausralians, restricted as they were by the new rules hammered out between the two associations. Nobody likes to lose, the Australians least of all.
Next year they’ll come to Ireland determined to re-establish their dominance. And if, as happened after their game in Galway, some irresponsible reporter calls into question their mettle, the Australians’ ability to stay calm in the second match will be tested to the full.
It is well known that what attracted many to the games in Ireland was the expectation of outbreaks of violence. Some who had never set foot in Croke Park made the journey for that very reason. They were not disappointed.
The sanitised version of the latest series will, mercifully, keep that element away from the games next October. But for the ordinary GAA punter, the pull will not be strong for a different reason.
The value of these games lies only in their attraction to the players and to those provided with an opportunity to holiday down under. Why the GAA continues to promote links with an association that is out to rob this country of its greatest football potential is hard to understand.