Saturday night under lights. But way off Broadway.
Live on TV. But a low-key season opener.
“You’d expect better,” admitted Meath manager Davy Nelson when asked about the scheduling of his team’s first match in the 2023 National League taking place at Dublin’s training facility in St Clare’s, DCU.
The rivalry between Meath and Dublin is currently the strongest and most marketable one in the women’s game. Since contesting the 2021 All-Ireland final, prior to Saturday they had played three further times – at Páirc Tailteann, Parnell Park and Croke Park. All were well attended matches.
So, the optics of the current All-Ireland and league champions running out to play the reigning Leinster champions at a completely uncovered pitch, with no elevated viewing banks, on the opening day of the 2023 season, weren’t great.
Of course, the practicalities behind locating a pitch last week put officials in a difficult spot. With Parnell Park deemed unplayable, Dublin LGFA found themselves trying to source a suitable alternative at short notice.
“There was no option,” said Dublin manager Mick Bohan. “The reality with Dublin is we don’t have a county ground, Parnell Park is it. The ladies’ section doesn’t have it. The pitch was unplayable.”
Within that quandary is the eternal problem for the LGFA and Camogie Association – access to pitches. They remain at the mercy and goodwill of GAA units. Until all three organisations are under the one umbrella, these problems will continue. Indeed, even after the integration is complete playing facilities will be the most difficult of that house-share arrangement.
The pitch at DCU on Saturday was as good a surface as you could hope to find anywhere at the end of January. But, ultimately, the venue was not fitting for a league game between two of the most high-profile teams in women’s Gaelic football. Dublin have played league games there before, but nothing of this level.
“Totally agree,” added Nelson on Saturday night. “We only got the fixture three days ago. We assumed it would be Parnell Park. We’ll play anywhere, there are no airs or graces about these girls, they are fantastic. But fitting of the game? I was at the games last year in Parnell Park and in Páirc Tailteann, there was around 4,000-5,000 people at them. You are coming to a college ground for a TG4 fixture, it’s hard to understand it.”
[ The fast-growing GAA club without a pitch to call its own ]
If a suitable venue was not available in the capital, one solution could have been to play the game at Páirc Tailteann with an earlier throw-in and an agreement Dublin were to be granted home advantage when the fixture spun around again next year.
“If the LGFA said we need the game to be played at a pitch with a stand then we would have gone to Páirc Tailteann, we’d have no problem with that,” said Bohan. “We are in the four corners of Ireland for our next couple of league games, going up the road to Páirc Tailteann wouldn’t have bothered us.”
Indeed they beat Meath in Navan when the sides met there last March. Saturday night’s win makes it three-one in favour of Dublin in terms of victories since the 2021 All-Ireland decider. And while both sides had new faces on Saturday, it was no harm for Dublin’s confidence to put another dent in that of their closest rivals.
“It’s the first National League game, so win or lose I wouldn’t be taking a huge heap out of it,” said Bohan. “But at the same time a win gives momentum to a group, gives energy. If you are 18 or 19 years of age and you start off with a hang-up about a county well it can start eating in on you.”
Still, Meath did win one of the sideline battles on Saturday night. The Royals dispatched an outrageously overqualified maor uisce duo with Vikki Wall and Emma Duggan dashing in and out with the water bottles.
Duggan didn’t play because of a slight quad injury while Wall’s presence on the night was significant for Meath – a reassuring sign she will be wearing the green and gold later this year.
“Vikki is back with us at the end of March, for the whole summer campaign, which will be brilliant,” confirmed Nelson.