Four of the seven teams bidding for the Nestor Cup saw action last weekend as Sligo overcame London and Leitrim defeated New York in an enthralling encounter.
This weekend, heavyweights Galway and Mayo clash in Castlebar while the Ross
Galway have been the story of the last 12 months having won promotion from Division 2 of the league last year and reaching the final of the top tier this year where they narrowly lost out to Dublin last month.
The Tribesmen bowed out of the championship last year with a quarter-final defeat to Kerry after losing the Connacht final to Roscommon.
Manager Kevin Walsh, with the help of former All-Ireland winning coach with Tyrone Paddy Tally has fine tuned a defensive system that makes his side very difficult to break down.
This new defensive solidity saw them concede just one goal in the league campaign and will serve them well as they embark on their provincial campaign this weekend.
Galway will also be bolstered by the return goalkeeper Bernard Power, wing-back Kieran Molloy and corner-forward Ian Burke, who were involved in Corofin’s All-Ireland club triumph on St. Patrick’s Day.
Also, in their past two provincial championship meetings against Mayo over the course of the last two years, they have emerged victorious, winning the Connacht title in 2016 before Roscommon out-thought them in last year’s provincial decider.
What to expect
Sunday’s clash with Mayo in Castlebar is likely to define where the provincial honours will go in 2018.
Galway have emerged as victors in the last two encounters against Mayo and with a newly-found defensive resilience, its hard to look past them making it three-in-a-row.
According to manager Kevin Walsh, provincial honours have to be priority in order to avoid a long road in the qualifiers to get to the business end of the championship.
“Whoever comes out the wrong end of this is going to have a huge job getting in the back door, but if you get through it then it makes you stronger,” he said to reporters.
“The ideal route is the front door but we’ll have to see how it goes. If you go back three or four years ago, maybe the expectation wasn’t there at all for Galway to perform or even compete. But that’s something that has probably changed in the last two or three years.”
While the improvement in Galway was obvious across the league campaign, many feared ahead of the final against Dublin that they could have fallen to a drubbing similiar to that of Derry in 2014 or Cork in 2015.
Walsh’s men however proved that they can compete at the level of the all-conquering Dubs, putting them in the running to put Mayo to bed on Sunday and go on to win their 45th provincial title.
Key Player: Damien Comer
While Galway have prioritised defensive solidity in recent months, their ability to get scores will ultimately define how far they progress in the championship.
In Damien Comer they have forward that is in form and will pose a major threat to any defense this summer.
One to watch: Kieran Molloy
Kieran Molloy grabbed the headlines earlier this year after starring in his club Corofin’s All-Ireland semi-final against Kildare’s Moorefield before getting a Garda escort to Dublin to play in the Sigerson Cup final.
The return of the hard running wing-back to the Galway squad will give manager Kevin Walsh something to think about with Molloy potentially giving the Tribesman an added edge to an already-steely defense.
In relation to Mayo, the same question comes to mind again… can they regroup and go again?
Last year’s beaten All-Ireland finalists go into a clash with Galway after barely saving their Division 1 status with a draw in the final game against Donegal.
Whether Stephen Rochford’s men are able to mount another serious All-Ireland challenge remains to be seen, however they will be looking to avoid the qualifier route that landed them in choppy waters over the last two seasons.
What to expect
A mammoth task awaits them on Sunday against a rejuvenated Galway team, which has defeated them in their last two meetings.
A shoulder injury looks likely to prevent the 2016 Footballer of the Year Lee Keegan from playing in Castlebar against Mayo’s near neighbours and will be a major blow to their chances of advancement.
While Cillian O’Connor has not returned to full training yet, Brendan Harrison, Chris Barrett and Donal Vaughan are expected to be involved.
According to Barrett, the clash with Galway is do or die for Mayo as he believes that they must regain their supremacy in the province.
“I think it’s really a huge focus this year that we need to get back to winning ways,” said Barrett to RTE Sport.
“We need to get back to winning Connacht and we need to beat Galway,” added the defender.
“They’ve beaten us twice in the last two years, which we are not too happy about. It’s a huge focus and a huge game. In my mind anyway, it’s probably the biggest start to a Championship season that we’ve ever had in terms of the build-up to the match, as well as the calibre of Galway.
With Rochford relying on many of the same seasoned campaigners that have lost successive All-Ireland finals, an in-form Galway team may be a bridge too far for his side.
Key Player: Cillian O’Connor
The Mayo manager confirmed that Cillian O’Connor will captain the side in the absence of Lee Keegan of and the experienced sharpshooter will be crucial how their Connacht championship goes.
While Mayo continue to search for more scoring forwards, the responsibilty of leading the attack will again rest on the shoulders of O’Connor in 2018.
One to watch: Conor Loftus
Mayo desperately need other players to step up and share the responsibility with the established stars and Conor Loftus could be the man.
Loftus had an impressive league and notched up six points to save Mayo from the drop on the last day against Donegal.
Roscommon go into the Connacht championship on the back of a successful league campaign that saw them win the division 2 title and secure a return to top flight football.
The current Connacht champions will again be looking to break the Galway-Mayo dominance.
Manager Kevin McStay said that his side” were not going to be showing their hand” in the league final victory.
With that in mind, Roscommon fans will hope that a defence that shipped 4-12 against the Breffni men will be shored up before the championship clash with Leitrim.
What to expect
Roscommon were relegated from division 1 of the league in 2017 with a somewhat inexperienced young team struggling against the top sides.
However, 12 months in division 2 has perhaps given them more time to develop and they are likely to again pose a major threat as they defend the Connacht title.
For McStay, the secret for the Rossies is consistency, be it in the provincial championship or through the new “Super 8” structure.
“I think that would be a target over the next few years, definitely, to get to the Super 8s fairly consistently,” said McStay to reporters after the league final.
“This year, it’s really just to try to get to the Connacht final and have a competitive game there and then try to get to the Super 8s. Over the next few years, I think getting to that group stage regularly would be the goal,” he added.
While Roscommon go into the clash with Leitrim after a long lay off, they should have enough to dispatch a side that barely escaped a trip to New York in one piece.
Battle-hardened Galway or Mayo will be a different proposition however, with the Super 8s looking to be a more realistic target for the Rossies this summer.
Key Player: Enda Smith
The 2017 All-Star nominee is a towering presence around the middle of the field for Roscommon.
The former Sigerson Cup winner is maturing into one of the most exciting prospects in the province and will be central to anything that Roscommon do this season.
One to watch: Cathal Cregg
Cathal Cregg was one of several big names who returned to the Roscommon panel this year after missing last year’s provincial triumph.
The former International Rules panelist came off the bench to score two goals in the league final and a return to form could be a major boost for McStay’s side this year.
Connacht Senior Football Championship Fixtures
Mayo v Galway, Sunday May 13th 4.00 pm, MacHale Park Castelbar
Leitrim v Roscommon, Saturday May 26th 7.00pm
Mayo/Galway v Sligo, Sunday June 3rd 3.30pm
Semi-final winner v semi-final winner, Sunday June 17th 4.00pm
Senior columnist for GAA Wrap.