Last weekend saw the return of competitive GAA action with start of the Allianz National hurling league. It began with somewhat of a whimper as Galway steam rolled Westmeath in Division 1a followed by Limerick and Tipperary producing a 20 points apiece shoot-out, while Kilkenny were just Kilkenny, they came they saw they took the points against Dublin. Wexford produced a similar result as Galway did against Laois, while Cork and Waterford was a goal fest in Paric Ui Chaoimh with the green flag been raised four times in injury time. The result of the weekend and described by many as a shock was Antrim’s win over Clare in Corrigan Park. Considering the short preparation time for teams and the long layoff they have experienced it was to be expected that some result would catch the eye and the Saffron County did not disappoint, but was it a shock?
I suppose any team from the stronghold of Munster would have an expectation of coming up North and plundering the points, but least we forget Antrim have regularly dined at the top table of the small ball. Through no fault of their own, the lack of a provincial championship in Ulster saw them parachuted into the Leinster competition where they have quietly being improving and developing. It should not be forgotten they were also Division 2 league champions and Joe McDonagh cup winners in 2020. While focus is reserved mostly for the top echelons of the hurling fraternity, it is worth noting just how competitive and indeed difficult these tier two competitions can be. A quick look at the results from the past weekend in Division 1, six games played with an average winning score of 10.5 points. Five games in Division 2 with a winning difference of 10.8, not much there to separate what is effectively four divisions broken into A & B groupings. Antrim’s lowering of the banner should be seen as a positive step in their progress and not the demise of Clare as a hurling powerhouse. Another weekend of results could make this statement very much redundant, but I do believe the Northern side will show continued improvement and the banner will be raised again.
For this scribe there was an added element of excitement as the call came through to cover a fixture involving Roscommon and Donegal in Division 2B in Letterkenny. A Junior C division 6 club encounter would have gladly been accepted at this stage so an outing to County Donegal was greeted like a second Christmas. From early in the week, the “media” bag was gotten ready; all pens were checked to ensure they still contained ink and had not gone dry after the long layoff. Notes were compiled on the two competing teams, a quick count on the days from the last fixture was calculated; just to have to hand should a bit of air time require filling, the note book was lined out and the team sheets were checked.
That was Wednesday, still three+ days to wait. Equipment was double checked, the sanitizer was topped up, rain gear was packed in. Two days to go, another check of the pens, having not gone dry in almost seven months they were hardly going to dry up now within 48 hours, but you just never know. The home house which has been a Covid bubble with now a vaccine back up was contacted; the tradition of the full Irish on the morning of the game was back on. Another check of the notes, a quick peep to see what the weather would be for Sunday, and double check that there was fuel in the company vehicle.
Saturday had a Christmas Eve feel to it, a giddiness that could not be explained, but was to be enjoyed consumed the most of the day. Coverage of Saturday’s action was taken in, adding to the sense of excitement that the following day would bring the opportunity to see it all in the flesh. Sunday dawned bright and fresh, a triple check carried out to ensure that all bits and pieces were safely stored away, a query at the kitchen table
Daddy why are you scribbling with the pens?
Yes they were still working.
Sausages, bacon, fried egg, potato bread, toast and a steam mug of hot tea greeted the first part of the journey; the conversation was all about how great it was to have the games back.
What time will you be on the radio, who is playing again, where is it in, have you got all your bits and pieces. Do you have a pen?
Breakfast in; time to hit the road. My journey from Monaghan took me north via the N2 through Emyvale, a village that would regularly be visited for GAA games and other events, it struck me that it was the first time in almost 12 months I had travelled this road. A new car park has sprung up in the middle of it, one of the positives of the lockdown, as I moved on past St Mellans the home of the Truagh GAA club, Monaghan’s most northerly club, I could see a small pod of players training on of their many training fields, roughly two or three mile down the road having crossed the border the Aghaloo GAA grounds appeared on the left hand side, the contrast between the two venues was intriguing, as a competitive football match was in full flight on the Co. Tyrone pitch. The journey continued on via Aughnacloy to Ballygawley and towards Omagh. Heavy rain was making the wipers earn their keep and I was pleased that the rain gear had been packed. Groups of cyclists were passed at different intervals, some battling the elements, others having managed to avoid it. Just seeing those athletes doing their thing brought a sense of normality to the day.
The rain remained behind and sunshine started to appear as we moved closer to Strabane and Lifford. A quick glance over the Stewartstown bypass had again given a glimpse of a game occurring on their club ground, the split second of looking, perfectly timed with an umpire raising a white flag.
I said to no one but myself, I hadn’t even seen it, but that second of seeing the flag, brought the words to my lips. The excitement grew as the miles/kms to Letterkenny grew shorter. There was a quick realisation that I was now going on memory to get me to Paric O’Donnell. Into the town, turn left at the roundabout and out to the left, it seemed straight forward enough, I had been here before. No need for the Google maps or sat nav. 10 minutes later, the window was down and the lovely lilt of the Donegal accent was telling me I had to do a U turn and take the next left,
you’ll not miss it sir, it is on your left.
True to his word I arrived at the St Eunans club ground less than five minutes later. All the bits were gathered up, the mask was on, the hands sanitized and the required Covid 19 paperwork was handed in. Well-appointed stewards guided you to the extended media facilities, greetings rang around and hands were waved (not shook) as faces that had not been seen in quite a while were picked out. And then just like you had never been away, the routine kicked in, socially distant conversations with the other media folk, any team news or changes, are you on full commentary or updates, who’s the referee? what players should we be on the lookout for. The teams take the field from the stands where they have been getting their last few words of guidance following their vigorous warm ups on the surrounding training pitches. A moments silence is held in memory of a local photographer, Amhran Na bhFiann then rings out over the PA, been beautifully sung by a local lassie with a sanitized mic.
A lump briefly rises in the throat as you suddenly appreciate the privilege position of been here to see this game, it quickly goes down again as the referee blows the whistle to get the action underway.Donegal fire over a quick point, the umpire reaches for the white flag, “Good point” I mutter as a voice from the studio informs me,
Sean we will be with you in 30 seconds...
Here we go; it is good to be back.