The provincial skirmishes in this year’s all-changed-changed-utterly Championship continued this weekend, clarifying a few things in the process. This year’s likely Connacht champions for starters. Plus the moribund nature of the Leinster and Munster Championships.
There was a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God moment, with Colm O’Rourke’s Meath, who have consistently punched below their weight for a generation at this stage, finding themselves in the Tailteann Cup, having crashed out of Leinster at the hands of Offaly this afternoon.
There’s also the still developing story of Donegal’s vertiginous decline. Beaten today in Ulster by Down they’re at least guaranteed a place in the round-robin stage of the Championship but, on the evidence seen so far this year, that could prove an ugly experience for them.
Closer to home, Galway and Roscommon went toe-to-toe at a packed Dr Hyde Park this afternoon, in what was, in all but name, this year’s Nestor Cup decider. Sligo will, of course, have something to say about that, having demolished New York yesterday, but Galway will now be overwhelming favourites to seal back-to-back Connacht titles this year. If they manage this feat, it’ll be the first time they’ve done it in twenty years.
Roscommon came into today’s game a bit like the proverbial dog that had caught up with the car. They’d apparently worked since before Christmas with the sole aim of beating us on Easter Sunday but, having succeeded in doing this, it wasn’t clear what they were going to be able to do next.
Unlike us, Galway didn’t face off against them still knackered from playing a League final a week previously and with an overly welcoming attitude at the back. You always got the feeling that the home side would struggle against the well-organised shawl and so it proved over the course of a rather leaden first half.
When the Tribesmen went five up on the resumption, it looked like a right thumping might be on the cards. To their great credit, however, Roscommon roused themselves and the goal they scored to snatch a one-point lead, the ball inside claimed expertly by Enda Smith and finished emphatically by Ciaran Murtagh, brought the contest properly to life.
A wafer-thin advantage isn’t one any team can afford to sit on with over twenty minutes left to play. When Galway hit the front again, the Rossies were back to square-one, once again chasing the game. After Damien Comer’s goal, which was a touch fortuitous but he still had to win possession and finish to the net, which he did with aplomb, there wasn’t going to be any way back for the home team.
So Galway march on to the Connacht final, where victory there will guarantee them a spot as one of the four top seeds in the draw for the group stage. Kerry and Dublin will obviously be in that pot too, as will the Ulster champions, though, as ever, that’s not the easiest one to call, even at this juncture.
The line-up of second seeds is clear enough, a cohort that is, in truth, the weakest of the four pots. Clare, Sligo and one of Louth and Offaly will all be in there, with the beaten Ulster finalists the toughest nut to be added to that grouping.
After today’s defeat, Roscommon now find themselves back in the same position we’re in, as a third seed in the draw. Their win over us proved, all told, meaningless enough, though having had two hard Championship games under their belt won’t have done them any harm either.
Tyrone are in with ourselves and the Rossies as a third seed. The shake-out in Ulster and Leinster – where further progress (or the lack of it) for Down or Offaly is of particular interest – will dictate who fills the remaining slot. Whoever it is will definitely be from Ulster and it’ll be either Monaghan or Derry.
In addition, if one of Down or Offaly make their respective provincial finals then Kildare – Leinster’s other big underachievers, given their population and resources – will drop to the Tailteann Cup. Unless, of course, they beat the Dubs. I know, white blackbirds and all that.
If both Down and Offaly progress, then Cork will also fall through the Tailteann Cup trapdoor. That means there’s plenty on the line arising from the upcoming Leinster and Ulster semi-finals.
The draw for the All-Ireland group stages is due to take place on Tuesday of next week and will be streamed on GAA GO. By then the Ulster and Leinster semi-finals will have taken place – they’re fixed for next weekend – and so while first and second seedings won’t be determined by then, all the third and fourth seedings will, enabling the draw to take place.
Once it does, the focus will shift from the early exchanges we’ve witnessed so far onto the uncharted territory of the group stage and what lies beyond in this year’s Championship. This initial phase, which has shown the provincial Championship format to be more jaded than ever, will soon be forgotten once the Championship begins in earnest as the round-robin clashes get underway four weeks from now.