Offaly’s Jason Sampson, left, and Paul Doyle of Carlow during the Joe McDonagh Cup final media event at Croke Park. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile.

McDonagh Cup decider a crucial clash for Offaly hurling’s future

By Kevin Egan

For all the U20 hurlers’ heroics, and regardless of how the county fares in the Tailteann Cup, there’s a very solid case to argue that tomorrow’s Joe McDonagh Cup final is the most important fixture for any Offaly team this season.

It is long past time for Offaly to get back into the Leinster SHC, and while there is still a long way to go before the county is hurling consistently at a level that would cause problems for Dublin and Wexford, much less Kilkenny and Galway, the current success of the U-20s and the likely progression of a lot of that group to senior level over the next three years means that it is the ideal time to figure out which of the current Offaly seniors are able to take their game to the next level, and which of them will struggle outside of the second tier.

And as if that wasn’t enough, the sudden possibility that Wexford will drop to the Joe McDonagh Cup for 2024 makes it all the more important that Offaly don’t lose out tomorrow.

There’s no doubt that the Model County are in crisis right now, however a lot of that is down to injuries, and temporary issues that should be relatively easy to address. Wexford don’t look like a county that will reach an All-Ireland semi-final at any stage in the next two or three years, but they don’t look like a county that is in the early stage of a meaningful decline either.

They will also take plenty of encouragement from this year’s U-20 championship, and barring another injury crisis, they should be four or five points a better team next year.

However saying that Wexford’s potential presence in next year’s Joe McDonagh Cup could make it a tougher competition is fair, but that’s not the same as saying that a final against Carlow would be plain sailing.

It is a comparatively easier assignment absolutely – but in places like Borris and Ballinkillen, they will also make the case that a final against Offaly would be a lot easier than a final against Wexford.

Tom Mullally’s side will bring a lot to Croke Park, and some of their most positive attributes correspond with the areas where there are the most concerns about Offaly. They score goals at an excellent rate, with 22 in ten matches so far this year across Division 2A of the league, and the McDonagh Cup. Offaly have scored ten goals in 12 games.

They have powerful, mature players all across their ‘ball-winning’ lines at half forward and half-back, while the presence of men like Richard Coady and John Michael Nolan on the bench gives them options that Offaly don’t have in terms of “steadying the ship”. In general, getting meaningful contributions from the substitutes has been an issue for Offaly all year long, and in Croke Park on a warm summer’s afternoon, that will have to change.

That being said, there is a lot to like about what Offaly are doing defensively this year, both collectively, and individually. Eoghan Cahill might be racking up the scores but if the GAA were to take a leaf out of the book of American sports and elect an “MVP”, then the likely front runner from the Faithful County camp would be Ciarán Burke, with Ben Conneely not far off.

Adrian Cleary has played the sweeper role incredibly well and gets on a lot of ball, using it well, while his Shinrone colleagues in the half-back line have carried their club form through to county level. Jason’s battle with Marty Kavanagh, if Johnny Kelly deems that to be a match-up that he wants to take place, is likely to be hugely consequential.

There is a good level of fitness across the board and plenty of mobility, even if there isn’t an inordinate amount of devastating straight-line speed, and these are qualities that Offaly need to bring to bear on the game tomorrow.

The generally feelgood factor enveloping the county means that in the eyes of the nation, Offaly are clear favourites for this game.

Anyone close to Offaly hurling who remembers games such as the complete collapse in what was a relegation showdown in the 2019 Allianz League, or even last year’s Joe McDonagh Cup tie, will know that in games with the highest stakes, Carlow have a very good track record against Offaly in recent years.

The stakes have never been higher than they are tomorrow, so that trend absolutely must be reversed if Offaly are to avoid what would be a devastating setback.

RTE theatrics cheapen debate and discussion

Unless you are permanently offline – in which case, well done on a very difficult achievement – it would be hard to have miss the clip from last Sunday’s live RTE GAA broadcast where Joanne Cantwell asked Dónal Óg Cusack to stand by his remarks on RTE radio, where he described the Tailteann Cup as a “Grand National for disappointed also-rans”.

A remark like this coming from a hurling pundit would be disappointing. A remark like this coming from the President of the GPA is breathtakingly offensive, and when we consider that there are more GPA members who do not play in either the Liam MacCarthy Cup or the All-Ireland SFC round robin series than there are members who compete at the top level, it would be fascinating to see if there is any fall out within the organization.

Perhaps even more regrettable, however, was the manner in which the whole subject was handled. Only those involved know whether or not Dónal Óg was briefed in advance as to whether or not the matter of his comments would be raised, but one can only assume he would have been. Either way, his attempt to bluster his way out of it, accusing Cantwell of misquoting him – which she didn’t – was fresh out of the Donald Trump/Boris Johnson playbook.

Needless to say RTE didn’t help by slicing up the clip and happily harvesting all those social media likes, follows and views, in the aftermath.

There has always been, and there will always be, divides in the GAA between those who have a primary interest in just one of the two main codes, and those who follow the other. However modern politics has evolved into a sports fan situation, where the person “on our side” is always right, and the person “on the other side” is always wrong, regardless of the substance of what they say.

By getting argumentative and confrontational, Dónal Óg fed into that, and consequently, his support online was drawn almost exclusively from “hurling people” who just wanted to stand behind one of their own.

This method of debate does not serve society, and it does not serve the GAA, where it is an unfortunate truth that what happens on RTE live and highlights shows often dictates the future direction of association policy. Dónal Óg has a huge amount of influence, far more than most elected officials in the GAA. He has earned that to a degree and is entitled to be heard, but it’s also not unreasonable for him to be held to account at the same time.

Whether we are hurling or football people, it would do no harm to step back from the subject of this debate, and ask if the manner in which it played out was detrimental overall.