We fete the great sides, and rightly so – but we don’t always cut their nearest challengers the slack that they might deserve.
Dublin’s achievement in winning six consecutive All-Ireland senior football titles was monumental, even allowing for the built-in advantages that they had. Being able to come through Leinster unscathed every year was a help, of course, but winning 16 consecutive knockout ties from 2015-20 inclusive was not an easy task.
It’s easy to forget now how that winning run might have been nipped in the bud at the semi-final stage in 2015, when a replay was needed to get over Mayo, who also drew with the Dubs in the 2016 final.
The closest thing hurling has to a Mayo is Waterford, without a title since 1959 and with final defeats in 2008, 2017 and 2020
Mayo scored the last three points in that decider to give themselves a second chance, yet the narrative ahead of the replay was that they had missed their chance rather than crediting the efforts expended to avoid defeat. As it turned out, Dublin did win the second day – as they would in the 2019 final replay against Kerry – but it was indicative of how we tend to frame perceptions of teams.
Having come so close so many times without winning, Mayo have a metaphorical losers’ tag attached to them whereas counties that never got that far avoid such examination.
The closest thing hurling has to a Mayo is Waterford, without a title since 1959 and with final defeats in 2008, 2017 and 2020. Of the four championship games they have lost over the last two seasons, three have been against Limerick and the Déise are considered to be the best of the chasing pack, a status backed up by their Allianz Hurling League final win over Cork earlier this month.
When they travelled to TUS Gaelic Grounds last Saturday on the back of a win over Tipperary, it was viewed as a chance to land a punch on the champions in the first of what many expect to be a trilogy, taking in the Munster and All-Ireland finals.
There’s no way of knowing if that will materialise, of course – there are far too many variables when the knockout element comes into it, not least injuries to key players. And, of late, Limerick have been having bad luck in that regard, with Peter Casey and Séamus Flanagan out prior to the championship, Kyle Hayes laid low since the opening win over Cork and then Cian Lynch forced to retire in the early stages on Saturday.
And yet, Limerick still won, by 0-30 to 2-21. It was a monumental feat to be able to cope with the absence of so many key men and it showed just how and why John Kiely’s men are where they are.
At the same time as Limerick were being lauded, though, the result was being held up as a missed opportunity for Waterford. The three games across 2020 and 2021 had resulted in winning margins of four, 11 and 11 points, without Waterford scoring a goal. To have hit the net twice and finished within three points of the champions was clear progress, as manager Liam Cahill outlined afterwards. That they didn’t win against such a powerful machine can hardly be said to be a failure.
Obviously, they would have liked to win but a victory here would have counted for little if Limerick beat them down the road. On the other hand, one might fairly ask if Waterford will be able to beat the Shannonsiders – with some or all of the injured parties back – in a knockout game if they couldn’t do it last week.
I don’t know the answer to that and, despite the self-importance of some opinions out there, neither does anyone else. The bottom line is that it’s still April and Limerick remain the market leaders but Waterford aren’t far off.
We apologise to any readers of a footballing bent who might feel that hurling is receiving the bulk of the exposure the past few weeks, but that’s the nature of the composition of the two championships – the provincial round-robins make the hurling schedule front-loaded whereas the early rounds of the football can lead to some mismatches.
Things still aren’t fully into their stride – Donegal-Armagh could have been a fixture to kick-start the intensity but the Orchard County couldn’t follow up their good league form and Declan Bonnar’s side showed them that they have a way to go.
Equally, while the scoreboard showed Galway a point ahead of Mayo at the end in Castlebar, that was only thanks to a late flurry by the hosts after they had left themselves too much to do.
Sunday’s Ulster SFC meeting of Tyrone and Derry could be an interesting one as the All-Ireland champions are still adapting to the loss of a number of key men since the end of last year’s championship but, even so, they are warm favourites.
Similarly, Dublin may not be at the levels they were but they should still come through the test posed by Wexford on Saturday evening. Instead, the potential for the best action looks to be in the hurling again.
Master and apprentice
Pearse Stadium in Salthill is the venue for the meeting of master and apprentice, Brian Cody up against Henry Shefflin, but there is no room for sentiment. Galway allowed Wexford a draw in the opening round after having a healthy lead at one stage and, while they had a blow-out against Westmeath last weekend, there isn’t much more room for error on their part.
The Cats, written off so often over the past few years, have eased into the championship with victories against the Lake County and Laois but this will be a step up for them.
It may not be at the levels of the Limerick-Waterford game last week, but it could certainly be entertaining.