Well, if we can claim the bulk of the credit for Connacht’s decisive victory over Leinster last weekend in the Railway Cup semi-final then we have to be prepared to accept the bulk of the responsibility for the province’s decisive defeat to Munster in this evening’s interprovincial final. Played in front of a few hundred hardy souls in bracing conditions at O’Moore Park, Portlaoise, this was a match in which Connacht never competed and the 1-9 to 0-7 final scoreline didn’t flatter the Munster lads in the slightest. It was Munster’s first interprovincial title since 1999 but Connacht’s wait for this particular gong will now extend to a full forty years.
There were eight Mayo lads in Johnno’s starting line-up last weekend and he went one better tonight, with Ronan McGarritty starting at midfield and Pat Harte moving to centre-forward in place of the injured Padraig Joyce. The wily old Killererin fox had pulled the strings in the Connacht attack at Kiltoom the last day and it became quickly obvious that the Westerners’ offensive threat wasn’t going to be as great tonight in his absence.
Connacht won plenty of possession in the first ten minutes but the quality of ball sent into the forwards was nothing short of dire, with ball after ball kicked straight to unmarked Munster defenders. We should have racked up a few scores in that opening period when we had Munster pinned back but we failed to do so and soon the Southerners gave our lads cause to regret this failure.
In a devastating burst, Munster raced into a 1-4 to 0-0 lead, with points from play by Cork’s Daniel Goulding and Nicholas Murphy and a free from Limerick’s Ian Ryan followed by a cracking goal by Waterford’s Maurice O’Gorman, who ended a flowing move that saw the Connacht rearguard carved totally open. Seven points down after 15 minutes or so and already the match was as good as over.
Mort finally opened Connacht’s account from a free after twenty minutes but two more Munster points from Goulding (a free) and Donncha O’Connor extended their lead. On the stroke of half-time, Alan Dillon got Connacht’s first point from play but they trudged off at half-time 1-6 to 0-2 in arrears.
Connacht needed an early goal in the second half if they were to have any hope of making a game of it and they came close shortly after the restart when a good move ended with Mort crashing a shot against the upright. Alan Dillon then swung over this fine point from distance and a free from Mort cut the gap to five but Cork’s Goulding added two at the other end to restore Munster’s seven-point lead. Roscommon’s Ger Heneghan – who had replaced Leitrim’s Emlyn Mulligan – then knocked over two frees for Connacht (Mort had left the field by now as well) with the night’s scoring concluded by another Munster point from Donncha O’Connor and then this point from play from Andy Moran.
It was a dismal Connacht performance, one which saw them run ragged by a far slicker and more confident Munster outfit. Johnno was bellowing like a bear on the sideline for most of the match and in the spooky quiet of the near-empty ground, his voice fairly carried across the freezing midland air. His decision to backbone the provincial side with Mayo lads quite clearly didn’t come off and, with a bench that included Galway lads such as Damien Burke, Gary Sice and Joe Bergin (with only the latter coming on during the game), it’s difficult to know why he opted to field the team that he did.
Few of our lads would have been happy with their performance, apart from David Clarke, who did very well between the posts, and Tom Cunniffe in defence, although it’s obvious that full-back isn’t his ideal position (but, then, no Mayo supporter would need to be reminded on this point). Neither Peadar Gardiner nor James Nallen got into the game at all and although Ronan won a fair bit of ball around the middle, he wasted a lot of it with ill-timed passes. Andy put in an amount of effort but to little effect and Pat Harte failed to get the attack moving at centre-forward. Alan Dillon scored two good points from play but apart from that he wasn’t in the thick of things and Mort, while unlucky with his goal attempt early in the second half, contributed little except for his two pointed frees.
All in all, it wasn’t a night to remember for Connacht or for our lads’ contribution to the province’s cause. And, in a virtually empty O’Moore Park, it was also difficult to be in any way positive about the future of the interprovincials. One thing’s for sure – a freezing cold night in November is not the ideal time of the year to play this (or indeed any other) kind of game.