The function of an All-Ireland semi-final is obvious, but not for the reason you might think.
Contrary to popular belief the purpose of the game is not to provide contestants for the All-Ireland final, but to provide a pretext for warming up one of the great sports cliches: that semi-finals are for winning.
For our lesson today take Limerick v Galway yesterday in Croke Park, a game the All-Ireland champions eventually put to bed deep, deep in injury time. They didn’t always impress but they found a way to win despite, as their manager put it, the kitchen sink being flung at them.
There are other complications in the existence of a semi-final, because all of them have a ready counterpart; they live always in comparison with their twin. In recent years the timing of the All-Ireland semi-finals, on consecutive days of a weekend, has added to that sense of instant comparison, of immediate contrast.
This last weekend we saw sleek dismissal on Saturday evening and . . . what exactly on Sunday afternoon? On Friday a few friends of your correspondent said they were expecting a close game and a blow-out from the weekend’s semi-finals, but not in the order we will witness. The one-sided game expected for the weekend was supposed to take place on Sunday; the general expectation that one game would provide an arm-wrestle? That was due to entertain us on Saturday evening, if you follow.
Sunday’s game was a live event at half-time, unlike the Kilkenny-Clare game, and at full-time. Limerick were their clinical selves in that opening half, angling the ball into Aaron Gillane and Seamus Flanagan in a first quarter that went according to script: the ball going green to green to green, a predictable set of vectors and transitions.
Yet there were only four points in it after 18 minutes. Galway’s shot selection was poor at times – Conor Cooney didn’t even lift one free high enough to trouble the crossbar, for instance, or they’d have been even closer. They were still close enough to smell Limerick’s exhaust fumes, though, and they got within a point on the half-hour before Limerick stretched their legs in the minutes before the break.
The All-Ireland champions had four to spare at the half, which was both an honest reflection of the previous 35 minutes and somehow underselling Limerick’s dominance of that first half, all at the same time.
Which made Brian Concannon’s goal for Galway all the more interesting.
Galway’s early delivery – dropping steeply – flummoxed the Limerick defense and Concannon’s finish was venomous, levelling the game: five minutes later Joseph Cooney gave Galway the lead.
Limerick took ten minutes to get on the scoreboard in the second half – a Diarmaid Byrnes equalizing free – and before the same man nudged his side ahead Galway boss Henry Shefflin and Limerick coach Paul Kinnerk were in the referee’s book.
The game was level turning into the final quarter, at which point Limerick sent for the cavalry, launching long absentees Peter Casey and Cian Lynch into the game, but Galway took the lead with the last ten minutes beckoning. With the clock winding down the teams tangled without grabbing the initiative until it came to those last, desperate minutes, when Limerick stretched for the tape.
“It was a tough battle,” said Limerick boss John Kiely afterwards.
“We got off to a good start – probably too good a start if you like, we were in flow very early, but that flow got obviously disrupted.
“Galway got back into the game, settled, started getting some fluency going themselves, and it was nip and tuck. Three or four points up and down, a really tight game, and ultimately it came down to that final quarter, and we won the final quarter. That was the vital part.” True to form, Shefflin saw the positives but acknowledged the realities: “I really hope they know now they’re not too far away.
“Ye have all said it, and I’ve said it, there’s loads of good hurlers up there. It’s just trying to put the small final details to it to see can you go to the next level. And some of them lads have been there, they’ve won an All-Ireland, so you’d hope so.
“We said to them, it’s important now that they go back to their clubs. I saw some of the club championship games last year in Galway and it wasn’t great. I think it’s important now that they go back and they try and lift some of the club players and try and increase the performance levels of club players next of all coming through, and feeding into the county squad.”
Galway will be unhappy, to put it mildly, with some of referee Thomas Walsh’s decisions in that second half in particular, while their shooting will give them some autumnal nightmares – three wides in those closing stages proved fatal, for instance. Yet for all that, they went out on their shields – asking harder questions of Limerick than other sides have managed to do all year.
In the Limerick corner there will be plenty of questions to answer, particularly given the necessity of replacing much of their forward line.
Kilkenny’s smooth excellence on Saturday will help them focus for the next fortnight as they put aside a performance that spluttered and stalled at times.
But look, we told you already. That’s what semi-finals are there for: winning.