The natural exuberance of schools footballers puts inter-county in the shade
The rules were the same and the pitch was the same but, for a good hour on St Patrick's day, this looked like a different sport.
Dummies were being loaded out of the place like crocs from a holiday-stall. Outside-of-the-boot scores were raining down like it was Salthill in January. It was one-against-one, it was end-to-end, it was take a risk or give that ball to me and, as Naas and St Brendan's went blow for blow, cut for cut and punt for punt of a March Thursday in Croke Park, it was a total and absolute joy to watch.
More kicking, less hand-passing and, no matter where or when you looked, there was a young fella with a spring in his step, a sense of adventure in his mind and a moment of magic on the brain. Some interviews are hard to forget and I'll never forget what James Duggan told me last year.
He's the Laois under-20 hurler who, from his knees, scored that incredible point in the Leinster championship but he said he'd been practicing it. He'd done it before in training and was only counting down the days until he'd get to try it in a match. There were James Duggans all over the field last Friday.
On any other day, Luke Crowley would have stole the show with his ball manipulation and Lebron James-esque behind the back bouncing but he was only one of many in this highlight reel.
🤩 Luke Crowley of @stpaulsbc making Croke Park his basketball court during yesterday’s Hogan Cup final.
— Basketball Ireland (@BballIrl) March 18, 2022
Gavin Thompson scored a point so audacious that it wouldn't have looked out of place in an Eamon Ryan presentation about climate change. Kevin Cummins, for crying out loud, chipped a goalkeeper who was standing only two yards off his line. Niall Dolan, William Shine and Cian McMahon - we could keep on naming names and re-hashing magic but there were so many things to that happened that you may just go and watch the match back.
It’s Gavin Thompson world and we’re just living in it #HalaCBS pic.twitter.com/hnxRYdvTVD
— Conor Murphy (@ConoMurphy10) March 17, 2022
Naas were deserving winners for a finish and, having won three Leinster titles in the last four years, all in Kildare will be hopeful that these sublimely talented young footballers won't get lost along the way. God knows that, through little fault of their own, so many have in an inter-county game that, nowadays values safe bets and slotting into the system over high skills and individualism.
Where hand-passing sideways and kick-passing, but only with the instep, is as adventurous as it's going to get.
It was a good 24 hours after the St Patrick's day showpiece when Mayo and Tyrone met in the National Football League and if you didn't know any better, you definitely wouldn't have thought this was a repeat of last year's All-Ireland final. It was so far removed from Naas and St Brendan's that, aside from Peter Harte's input, you would honestly have thought it was a different sport.
But sadly, this is just the norm for a game that, at the top level, has become so hard to watch that you'd forget how good it once was. As many inter-county players will tell you, it's not that they've lost the skills, it's that they're not allowed to use them. They don't practice them because they've to think about tracking runners and being here, there and everywhere that eventually, they're getting squeezed out of the game.
It was delightful to go back to the future on St Patrick's day and you'd be hopeful we see some more of it come high summer. But it's hard to hold out too much hope...