American sports promoters could never be accused of lacking bravado or of selling themselves short. Every spring, the sporting arm of the US collegiate system – the NCAA – hold a basketball tournament for colleges called “March Madness”, in which the quarter-final stage is named the “Elite Eight”. They even trademarked the term.
Things aren’t so simple with the GAA (Ireland’s leading sporting organisation/national killers of buzz). For fear of appearing too keen on ourselves or of upsetting the neighbours, we aren’t allowed to use such high-falutin’ terms as “elite” or even “super”.
Over the next four weeks, the top eight Gaelic football teams in the country (on current form at least) will compete for a place in the All Ireland semi-finals, but instead of labelling it the “Super 8s”, as you, me and even the dogs on the street have become accustomed to calling it over the last couple of years, the GAA steadfastly cling to the non-brevity of the “All-Ireland Quarter-Final Group Stage”.
But it’s not going to spoil our fun! This is arguably the best time of the footballing year, with twelve games to look forward to, featuring the best players in the country and teams hitting top stride.
The 2019 Super 8s…
Here’s a reminder of the makeup of the two Super 8s round-robin groups:
The two groups of four are certainly top-heavy in terms of storylines and general intrigue. Any group containing Dublin was always going to struggle for relevance. The Dubs – just like they did in 2018 – are about to sail through the Super 8s with all the ease and grace of Roger Federer sleepwalking his way through the top half of the draw at Wimbledon (don’t worry… the somewhat forgotten “five-in-a-row” subplot will bubble nicely to the front and centre come August).
But with last year’s All Ireland finalists Tyrone entering the fray alongside seemingly weaker Roscommon and Cork, many look at Group Two as a foregone conclusion.
Dublin and Tyrone set for dead rubber?
Group Two sees a little bit of history repeating, and it’s not particularly welcome (on Monday morning I described it as a bad Netflix show getting commissioned for a second series)…
Dublin, Roscommon and Tyrone all featured in the same round-robin in 2018 where – bar a couple of standout fixtures – it was turgid stuff. A year on, they’re all set to do it again.
At least some subplots feature subtle changes. For example, the guest appearances of Anthony Cunningham and Conor Cox make Roscommon’s potential an interesting angle, but they have a combined 32 points to make up on both Dublin and Tyrone (having remarkably conceded 4-24 to both last summer). No matter how well they performed in their excellent Connacht campaign, it feels unlikely they will make inroads against two of the best teams in the nation.
The only team change from last year is Cork, who are probably a step down in class from what Donegal provided in this field twelve months ago. Cork and Roscommon would fancy taking points off each other, but that fixture comes on the third round of games, when it will likely be in vain. All signs point to a procession through the group for both Dublin and Tyrone.
The real shame in all this is that the matchup between the Dubs and Red Hands at Healy Park, in the final round of games – a repeat of last year’s All Ireland Final – looks set to be a dead rubber, with both teams possibly already through on four points and playing for placings.
That would certainly be frustrating. I would have much preferred had they met on the opening weekend.
Cork’s return to semi-relevance
Who would ever have thought that Cork would be the flag-bearers for Division Three? Their demolition of Laois last weekend means the 2019 running of the Super 8s will have a team from the third level of next season’s NFL represented.
Manager Ronan McCarthy described elements of his team’s performance in Thurles as “scintillating” and the display backed-up a stronger-than-expected showing against Kerry last month, that itself came on the back of an 18 point win over Limerick in the Munster semi-final. It’s a far cry from the Rebels’ NFL campaign in the spring, when they suffered relegation from Division Two on the back of a series of abject displays against beatable opposition and had the Cork County Board questioning what on earth was going on!
However, it is still unclear how much progress Cork have actually made since those dark days in February. Their route to the Super 8s has been a shallow one: a win over Limerick and a win over Laois. Outside of that defeat to Kerry, Cork’s new-found credentials have yet to be fully tested.
But the acid test is coming.
They face Dublin this Saturday night in Croke Park before a meeting with Tyrone a week later, also in HQ. Last year the Red Hands handed the Rebels their backsides on a silver platter in a 16 point hammering that perhaps precipitated their subsequent NFL relegation. Tyrone are experts at snuffing out opponent’s star players (i.e. Hurley, Collins and perhaps more importantly, Ruairi Deane); can Ronan McCarthy find attacking threats from elsewhere?
If Cork cause Tyrone problems in that game then their trajectory is truly an upward one. But they are yet to really prove it.
Mayo are ready for the big dance
Meanwhile, Group One is the Group of Fun!
There are a number of people delighted at Mayo’s emergence from the qualifier quagmire to reach this year’s last eight, that concluded with a Round Four win over Galway. The people of Mayo, obviously, but outside of that: the GAA will see a boost in attendances; members of the media have at least another month’s worth of copy that practically writes itself; while “the neutrals” have three games of nervy, high-drama to enjoy that Galway simply wouldn’t have brought to proceedings. Already it looks more exciting than last year’s quarter-finals damp squib.
Adding to the spice in “Group One” (I’m still in shock the GAA hasn’t named these groups after former footballing greats), is the presence of Kerry, Donegal and Meath. Mayo have recent history with all of them, so we’re pretty much guaranteed entertainment and intrigue for the duration, with multiple interesting fixtures.
Mayo are always there for the theatrical element, but are they ready to compete in a football-sense?
After teetering on the brink for the last couple of weeks, James Horan’s side have got their groove back.
That performance against Galway has turned out to be worth much more than merely winning the game. Cillian O’Connor’s return from injury has added experience and cohesion to a forward unit that had lost its way against Armagh. There were a number of Mayo attacks last Saturday that looked more polished because of O’Connor’s involvement – Jason Doherty’s 46th minute point was one such example.
James Carr’s emergence provides them with a pacy, penetrative, deep attacking threat to go alongside the potential of Fionn McDonagh. Their squad depth appears to be the second best in the country, with Lee Keegan, Seamus O’Shea and Diarmuid O’Connor set to return.
Mayo are the only team remaining that have proved they can take on Dublin and push them all the way. While talk of them winning the 2019 All Ireland would be recklessly premature at this stage, there is at least a roadmap for them to get back to the heights of 2013-2017.
In short, Mayo are back in contention, but with much energy already expended this summer, their qualification from Group One is set up to be a close-run thing.
Kerry, Donegal and Mayo going to the wire
As my UnTitled GAA newsletter last Monday morning contended, Group One could well come down to scoring difference. Here’s the roadmap for that particular scenario:
- Meath finish on zero points
- Kerry defeat Mayo
- Donegal defeat Kerry
- Mayo defeat Donegal
I really don’t want to dismiss Meath entirely, but following Sunday’s scrappy win over Clare and last month’s Leinster Final collapse to Dublin, they look short of the quality the other three teams possess in their group. However they are set to play the dual role of underdogs and kingmakers in Group One: if they can produce an upset, it will spoil the party for someone!
Donegal are currently the class of Group One. In capturing another Ulster title and brushing aside the challenge of Tyrone they look an extremely well-balanced, physical and explosive outfit who can lean on the experience of last year’s disappointment. Their machine looks more mature and better oiled than Kerry’s at the moment and they could well win their first two games (vs Meath then Kerry).
Leaving the crazy jersey colour scheme to one side, Kerry’s opener against Mayo this Sunday is a potential cracker. I expect the game to be open which will favour the Kingdom, in that they have the forwards to make hay and won’t have to rely on a defensive system that looks under-nourished. It’s also probable that Mayo will be running somewhat on empty heading to Killarney, given the heady nature of the last few weeks.
But defeat to Kerry wouldn’t be a total disaster for Mayo. They’d fancy their chances against Meath to setup a winnable-ish home tie against Donegal. That would bring us to the score difference scenario outlined above, which would provide great entertainment and drama for those of us keeping score at home, but would result in huge disappointment for whichever team loses out.
On current form, that poor unfortunate could well be James Horan. His side are unlikely to score as freely and win with the type of margins Donegal and Kerry are capable of.
It’s almost too close to call, but this type of crazy speculation you’ve just reached the end of, is all part of the fun!
The GAA’s admirable clinging to the archaic provincial competitions and subsequent convoluted qualifier system, ensures that every football championship summer is a slow burner. But now that’s all out of the way, we have a festival of football to enjoy and finally get excited about.
Predictions: Donegal and Kerry; Dublin and Tyrone.
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Ciaran is the man behind UnTitled… a weekly GAA email newsletter that’s a quick, easy & entertaining way to stay updated with what’s happening in the world of Gaelic football. It;s out first thing every Monday morning!
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