Mike Quirke: Diarmuid Connolly repertoire easy on the eye

I was in the National Basketball Arena in Tallaght early on Saturday morning to watch St Brendan’s from Tralee win their first ever senior national title, beating Leixlip Nemunas in the intermediate cup final. 

It was a big game for Tralee, and Kerry basketball as a whole; a county that has long been a hotbed of the minority sport but has been starved of top-flight hoops action for too many years now.

A rejuvenated Kieran Donaghy was the inevitable hero of the piece, posting a stat line of 18 points, 26 rebounds and 12 assists. An exceptionally rare triple-double; like something you might get if you were playing the game on the PlayStation.

Having so much Superleague nous from a previous life, he was clearly just a different standard to everybody else on the floor, and when Brendan’s were under pressure in the first half, he led the charge and turned the tide, then happily sat back and orchestrated proceedings. It was the equivalent of watching Gooch playing junior football. A masterclass.

Mike Quirke: Diarmuid Connolly repertoire easy on the eye

I was delighted for all the lads involved in the club, especially the likes of Charles O’Sullivan who fought on his back to keep basketball alive for the people of Tralee when it would have been far easier to let it go.

It would also have been a very proud day for the recently departed Bruddy Burrows — one of the greatest legends of Tralee and Kerry basketball. He was remembered fondly afterwards.

Leaving the warmth and glow of the arena in Tallaght for the piercing cold of Croke Park later that evening wasn’t much fun for spectators.

While Kerry spluttered their way to the final whistle, like a car running out of fuel, Dublin cruised. With only five collective training sessions done since they’ve returned from their team holiday, it is still a mystery to me how they managed to get themselves level at seven points apiece at the interval.

In the end, the scoreline was hugely flattering to Kerry and on another night, could easily have been a 15-point drubbing, such was the superiority of the hosts.

Mike Quirke: Diarmuid Connolly repertoire easy on the eye

As much as Donaghy stood out on Saturday morning for looking like a dad toying with his kids in the backyard, Diarmuid Connolly looked equally as dominant and awe-inspiring over the 75 minutes in Dublin blue on the manicured surface of Croke Park.

Despite the limpid-like attentions of Paul Murphy, Connolly looked silky smooth and in control of everything he did. He was toying with Kerry for spells, operating on another level. He reminded me of the first time I watched Paul Scholes play live at Old Trafford... his touch, awareness, and his IQ were all obvious, but what stayed with me most about the United midfielder’s performance was how he always seemed to have time — he did things quickly, but was never rushed.

Scholes never once seemed to kick the ball that day, he just stroked it gracefully, using his foot like a wand.

Connolly has developed that very same poise in the past couple of seasons, that only the truly great ones find. He too strokes the ball as opposed to kicking it, a la Maurice Fitzgerald, and his passing was at its beautiful best Saturday. With all the negative noise around Gaelic football, the level of skill and style Connolly is bringing is one of the most aesthetically pleasing things about the modern game.

And modern football has become more tactically aware. Again, Dublin’s first building block for success in this game came from the ageless Stephen Cluxton and their ever-evolving kick-out strategy.

Each time Kerry kicked the ball dead, he was rapidly fed another by his assistant behind the goal, ran to the tee and was looking to get the game restarted in under seven seconds.

Their latest tweak sees all Dublin defenders and midfielders gather in a narrow central column down the middle of the field, roughly in line with the ball, leaving oceans of space on both wings to move into. They run hard through the cluster of bodies in the middle, creating a few natural screens in all the traffic for guys to break towards the side-lines at pace allowing Cluxton to hit them in stride. Straight out of the Aussie rules playbook. They make it look so simple.

Granted, it’s easier to do in the wide expanses of Croke Park, but still a clever, distinct variation from last year.

In case anybody was in any doubt before, the league champions aren’t going to relinquish their crown easily. Quite the opposite, they are growing and evolving all the time and are capable of widening the gap to the chasing pack.

Mike Quirke: Diarmuid Connolly repertoire easy on the eye

But as good as Dublin were, and considering their opposition, Cork surely topped Donegal for the performance of the opening weekend with a blistering start to life under Peadar Healy.

Mayo looked disjointed and uninterested in Páirc Ui Rinn with so many players out and Cork exploited those weaknesses with precision. The Rebels have always been capable of putting an early season tonking on opposition, but this was an important morale-booster for them, even for January 31.

What they need now is to build on this and find a level of consistency that has proved so elusive in recent years.

As the game wore on to its inevitable conclusion, I thought of Noel Connolly and Pat Holmes. Even for the most ardent of Mayo men, they wouldn’t be human if they didn’t feel the slightest tinge of satisfaction at seeing Cork run over the top of the boys who ousted them so unceremoniously in the not too distant past.

Swings and roundabouts.


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