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Galway put Mayo in their place

Sean Rice

Seán Rice

WHAT constitutes a melee? That’s a motion for debate at the GAA Congress later this month. It is submitted by Tipperary following an accusation that Jason Forde contributed to a melee in last year’s league.
In the incident, the Tipp hurler was involved with only one other person, Wexford’s Davy Fitzgerald, and the charge has prompted the motion for discussion calling that a melee ‘shall be defined as a minimum of five persons.’
If they want a more practical example of such an incident those moving the motion need look no farther than Pearse Stadium on Sunday where Mayo and Galway whipped up a good old rumpus in their league tie.
More than five players were involved and, while it was mostly handbag stuff, it was ugly and reflected growing enmity between the old rivals and all the tension and aggression their meetings are beginning to sprout.
The dismissal of three players — Galway’s Paul Conroy and Mayo brothers Cillian and Diarmuid O’Connor — had its origin in that dust-up which could lead to sanctions being imposed on the respective county boards.
Conroy and Diarmuid O’Connor were dismissed for each receiving two yellow cards. Cillian’s was a straight red and not undeserved for a reckless tackle on Eoghan Kerin during the final minutes of a game.
What led to the scuffle we’ll never know, for the match had been relatively tame up to that outbreak, tough but without any serious rancour, with Galway dominating the play and confirming their steady rise up the ladder of All-Ireland potential.
Having won their first three games, the Tribesmen are now relatively safe among the top teams in the country. In a division they have not experienced for years, they are now free to experiment for their remaining games.
Mayo, striving to retain the stature they have built up over more than half a dozen years, are the yardstick by which others are judged. But there is now clear evidence that in the absence of the regulars they don’t have quality reserves in sufficient numbers to maintain their adventures in Croke Park.
For much of the first half there was little enough between them as each showed the other enough respect to play cagily, to tease out their respective strengths and vulnerabilities.
Mayo had most of the possession, but were noticeably edgy when Galway’s Shane Walsh and Damien Comer were in possession. The explosive speed of Walsh and the aggressiveness of Comer left no one in doubt about the danger they posed.
How Mayo could have done with a couple of forwards of their calibre. For all their possession in that first half, Mayo were never able to pierce a Galway defence that was content to allow them move the ball in any direction but forward.
Only midfielder Aidan O’Shea had the physical strength to force an opening, but the speed with which Galway choked off every possible gap denied every Mayo attempt. The result was that goalkeeper Ruairi Lavelle was not called on once to take his defence off the hook.
Once in that first half, Colm Boyle, always foraging for an opening, did break through the defence only to be unfairly whistled up for over carrying.

Defence unable to hold out
SO for some eighteen minutes they sized each other up, Galway ahead by a point until the 19th minute when Barry McHugh, a late addition to the Galway side, got a break. Availing of an unfortunate slip by Ger Cafferkey, he wheeled around the full-back and put the ball beyond the reach of David Clarke.
It was the decisive score, and it proved that in Mayo’s policing too closely of Comer and Walsh, Galway could derive greater benefits from forwards of lesser repute.
Indeed the front line as a whole were yards faster than Mayo. Eamon Brannigan, who scored three points, added further impetus to the pressure on the Mayo defence and had good chances to increase the lead further especially in the second half.
Already without Keegan, Barrett, Vaughan and Higgins, the Mayo defence was further weakened by the withdrawal of Brendan Harrison before the game. Caolan Crowe stepped in, but the old reliability associated with the Mayo back line was never assured even though Paddy Durcan tried hard, Colm Boyle strove to impart some of his normal inspiration and Eoin O’Donoghue did enough to suggest he is settling into the side.
After sliding on the soft surface, which led to Galway’s goal, Ger Cafferkey did recover sufficiently to suggest that there are few contenders for the full-back position and in that first half Stephen Coen did some good work.
The midfield spoils broke evenly in the first half, Mayo’s Aidan O’Shea and Jason Gibbons if anything shading the exchanges. Paul Conroy did, however, come more into the game in the final quarter when he scored a couple of vital points.
But after the break Galway grew more adventurous, more aggressive and certainly more superior. More than once Mayo’s lack of pace was laid bare especially when the Tribesmen stormed out of defence. Mayo never recovered the composure of the first fifteen minutes. Their rhythm disrupted they lost shape, lost their way.
The two-point gap that separated them had grown in seconds to four. And while Cillian, his free-taking much more accurate on this occasion, and Boyle with points kept the margin manageable, the fitness of the Galway men was more than Mayo could match.
Steadily, the grip tightened. Chances for Mayo scores became fewer. From no position was there any Mayo inspiration. Conroy, McHugh and Brannigan were nailing down victory and Comer, not Walsh, was clearing the way for the winning scores.
Then all hell erupted after Galway went six ahead. There was nothing seemly about it all. And it tends only to intensify anticipation of their championship confrontation at MacHale Park in May.
In the meantime Mayo may be heading for a stint in Division 2. The outcome of big games to come will determine their fate. Dublin next, then Kildare, Tyrone and Donegal. Take your pick. We need two victories.
Without doubt Stephen Rochford is struggling to find adequate replacements for those regulars who may not make the championship side. Because of Mayo’s All-Ireland exertions they are well behind in their training schedule. Other teams, especially Galway and Roscommon, have had a big head-start.
Next Sunday is rest day. So Mayo have a couple of weeks to assess the damage of the past two defeats and make some corrections. But where is there a Walsh or a Comer? Already it would seem that, for want of a rest, Kevin McLoughlin, their one consistent star forward, is losing a little of his glow.
What then?

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