Armagh’s Athletic Grounds is a fitting venue for Sunday’s M Donnelly Interprovincial semi-final double-header between Ulster and Munster.
Even if Munster have now gone two years without a home semi-final (they owed Ulster a trip), this was the place 12 months ago where the GAA hierarchy were told in no uncertain terms that the province wanted the competition to continue.
Prior to the series, then GAA president Christy Cooney had expressed his uncertainty about the series continuing.
However, on presenting the cup to Ulster captain Darren Hughes, Cooney was given an answer from the Monaghan man: “Let’s hope Christy doesn’t get his way!”
Hughes had a quiet word with Cooney away from the microphone afterwards as if to say he meant no offence.
But his recordable words were greeted with cheers from the majority of the 2,860 who watched the game. Ulster winning had helped, of course.
Over a week earlier, the Central Competitions Control Committee (CCCC) had rearranged the postponed NFL Division One game between Mayo and Dublin for the previous Saturday, less than 24 hours before players from each county were to play for Munster and Leinster respectively.
It highlighted the attitude towards the Interprovincial series and then Leinster boss Sean Boylan held firm and refused to attend a Croke Park launch for the competition until the Mayo-Dublin game was refixed on another date.
GAA director general Páraic Duffy also had to be given credit. As much he has questioned the continuing existence of the series, it was he who effectively ensured the semi-finals had a weekend free of inter-county activity.
That said, the CCCC have rearranged the Division 2 Louth-Galway and Armagh-Wexford clashes for Saturday week meaning there could be implications for Leinster, Connacht or Ulster should they win through to the February 24 final.
GAA president Liam O’Neill’s thoughts on the Interprovincials aren’t exactly certain and yesterday he suggested there is some hypocrisy among those who have backed the competitions to continue.
“Up to this, people have not always been as supportive in coming to the games as they have been in demanding the competitions take place.”
The low attendances would justify his case but then the GAA itself could be accused of doing little in the way of marketing for what is the highest representative competition for both footballers and hurlers.
However, his proposal for an Interprovincial final to be played in Croke Park for the next three years with all proceeds going to Our Lady’s Hospital for Sick Children, Crumlin, is a novel one.
Even it was announced just 12 days out, the GAA’s networks combined with those of the hospital’s fundraisers could see the venture turn out to be a mutual beneficial one for both parties over the coming years With the possibility of next year’s Interprovincial football final being played in Dallas as part of the annual North Texas Irish festival there in 2014, the idea at the moment is the hurling decider will be staged in Croke Park in 13 months’ time.
As it is the greatest representative honour inter-county can achieve, it is fitting that at least one of the finals is played there even if the public haven’t caught onto its appeal.
A tournament over 90 years old, sponsor Martin Donnelly has stuck by it because he recognises the value of it for the smaller counties in each code.
Certainly, the talents of Donnelly’s own Claremen David Tubridy and Gary Brennan were exposed in last year’s competition.
They are but one of four Division Four counties in Munster that will contribute to Ger O’Sullivan’s squad that will travel to Armagh this Sunday.
Playing alongside the likes of Tomás Ó Sé and Graham Canty is not something they’re going to throw their nose up at.
Just as the International Rules is an opportunity for the likes of Carlow’s Brendan Murphy and Wicklow’s Leighton Glynn to exhibit their skills, the Interprovincials provide the chance for a greater number of star players from minnow counties to display their worth.
O’Sullivan last year remembers ringing Waterford’s Shane Briggs to join the panel. Briggs had put off his retirement from inter-county football in the hope that he would one day play for Munster.
The former Cork selector also recalled receiving a call from a Limerick player who had asked could he take it easy in training on Thursday as he had a club game the following Sunday. The club game was a county hurling final. “That’s how much it meant to him,” smiled O’Sullivan.
In time, the new initiative with Our Lady’s Hospital for Sick Children could prove the resurrection of the Railway Cup.
For now, though, the GAA should fully appreciate that it’s something that the players want and it should be facilitated. If that means taking a financial hit, then the Association should happily brace itself. As O’Neill says, it’s all about the players.