No quarters asked for but we'll take what we're given

Here are some things that shouldn’t work but somehow do. Dancing with the Stars. Daniel and Majella roaming the highways and byways of Ireland channelling their inner Jack Kerouac. Chocolate with raspberry. The Trump White House (Loosely speaking).

No quarters asked for but we'll take what we're given

Here’s something else that functions almost despite itself. The National Hurling League quarter-finals. There’s a reader in Limerick, more of whom anon, who’ll digest this paragraph with a triumphant smile.

By any normal metric they oughtn’t to. The National Hurling League structure resembles something drawn up by Central Council on the back of a cigarette packet.

Very possibly it was. Five rounds of fixtures to jettison a third of the teams in Division 1, then the teams in fifth and sixth ignored in favour of the teams from seventh to tenth. Supremely illogical, utterly lacking in intellectual rigour, but what happened last autumn — or, rather, what didn’t happen — was worse.

With the biggest and busiest ever championship approved, whatever tenuous doctrinal justification obtained for the existence of the quarter-finals — and arguably even the semi-finals — was removed.

With counties guaranteed a record number of matches in 2018, someone should have shouted stop and ensured the league was pared back commensurately. No one did. It is the GAA equivalent of a butterfly flapping its wings.

Delegates at a special congress can’t be bothered to think through the ramifications of their decision and six months later, before we’re even into April, the Tipperary county chairman is bemoaning fixture chaos.

And yet and yet. The events of bank holiday Monday turned logic, that strict unbending mistress, on her head.

Offaly came close to pulling off the shock of the year to date by very nearly overturning Kilkenny — not the Kilkenny of old, to be sure, but men in stripes nonetheless — in Tullamore.

With one team in the province condemned to lose MacCarthy Cup status, Leinster will be even more of a piranha tank this summer than Munster. Offaly have made sure nobody will take them for granted.

What transpired on the Ennis Road later in the afternoon was, of course, more noteworthy still.

Not necessarily in a good way, however. Strip away the novelty factor and it’s obvious that a freetaking competition is not the way of the future as a deadlock splitter. Too clinical as a spectacle, too straightforward and just plain too dull.

Putting over a dead ball from 65 metres, with the same 10 players on duty indefinitely? “Aisy to do that with nobody marking you”, etc. It’s a wonder things didn’t go on till closing time. A penalty shootout would be infinitely more engaging and dramatic.

(Digressing wildly, your correspondent has long been of the opinion that Ireland’s best chance of winning The People’s Game© World Cup lies in taking every game at the business end of the finals to penalties, then sudden death kicks.

Three or four of the Irish forwards, horny-handed sons of the soil like Tadhg Furlong and Sean O’Brien, will nail theirs, no problem. The other crowd’s forwards, the big lummoxes, will scarcely be able to kick the ball out of their way. Joe Schmidt will be sending me flowers next year. Just wait and see.)

Anyway, between them, Limerick and Clare succeeded in redeeming the quarter-final concept. There’s every reason to hope that Wexford and Galway will do the same today. There’s every reason to believe that the fixture could be a dry run for this year’s Leinster final as well as being a repeat of last year’s.

Whether Davy wants a league semi-final date with Kilkenny, meaning the counties will end up facing one another four times in the space of six months, is unknowable. But a home date with the All-Ireland champions is a challenge that cannot be spurned. Wexford won promotion not to fulfil such fixtures but to win them.

At Croke Park eight months ago Galway marked Wexford’s card as to how far they’d come under Davy in a short space of time and how far they had left to travel.

While the boot is not yet on the other foot and may never be, their first campaign back in the top flight will stand to the hosts this afternoon.

In terms of match fitness they hold an obvious advantage, while in view of the length of their sick list — “eight guys who played championship last year”, according to the manager, among them Lee Chin — the performance in Nowlan Park a fortnight ago was perfectly acceptable.

No less encouraging was the form shown by Kevin Foley at midfield and young Rory O’Connor up front, with the latter among five from Slaneyside on the DCU outfit that retained their All-Ireland freshers title last Wednesday.

Though Conor McDonald is still searching for his form of two years ago Wexford are beginning to do something they haven’t managed in decades: promising good forwards in clumps rather than as single blades.

Champions usually require a wake-up call lest they sleepwalk into their title defence; Galway received precisely that from Limerick. Micheál Donoghue was annoyed about the officiating; he was scarcely upset about the result.

But he’ll be upset should no response be forthcoming in Wexford Park, even if the visitors are a month or more behind their opponents as regards sharpness. Brian Concannon and Shane Cooney, Conor’s brother, are two interesting prospects who have time on their side.

The county’s decades-delayed, richly deserved MacCarthy Cup honeymoon lasted as long as it was entitled to. Today is their first Monday back in the office. In another year this would be a critical fixture for them, potentially the last before a Leinster semi-final.

In the year that’s in it and the championship that awaits, on the other hand, it constitutes more of a sharpening exercise. Galway will have the luxury of playing themselves into the championship, and into a provincial decider, via the four games of the round robin.

The 2018 National League title, a first for them since 1973, is there for Wexford if they want it badly enough. They should be a step closer to it by teatime.

The visit of Tipperary to Croke Park tomorrow arrives at least a year too early for Pat Gilroy. In 12 months’ time he’ll have sorted the wheat from the chaff and put a shape and structure on his team.

But time constraints mean he hasn’t done so yet, simply because he cannot have, and his Cuala aspirants remain otherwise engaged. That said, whatever forward line Michael Ryan chooses or is able to field will subject Dublin to quite the stress test.

A month and a half away from a championship date against Kilkenny at Parnell Park, that’ll be no harm, regardless of the bullet holes shipped.

As for yer man in Limerick, he took to Twitter on Monday night, in high good humour after being at the Gaelic Grounds, to reiterate his long-standing, frequently expressed love for the National League quarter-finals. He won’t have a quarter-final to attend next season. But he’s seen a few of them and they worked. Somehow.

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Saturday, March 6, 2021

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