By the time the final whistle blew in Portlaoise last Sunday afternoon, the landscape of this season’s Super 8s was finally set.
Cavan crumbled to a re-energised Tyrone, Cork continued their strong run of form with an impressive dismantling of an outclassed Laois, and Meath fell over the line against a Clare side who never once took a backward step.
The big one of the weekend was the meeting of Mayo and Galway in the LIT Gaelic Grounds in Limerick on Saturday evening. It lived up to the hype for the most part with an electric atmosphere inside the stadium, especially in the second half when the Tribesmen had more of a go and Mayo started to fade.
I don’t know the breakdown of where the tickets went, but like most of the games they play, the Mayo crowd made themselves heard throughout, especially when their team were in need of a jolt of energy.
This year’s Allianz League Division One champions are nothing if not resilient, but again, we’ve been saying that for years. They found themselves under all sorts of pressure as Galway came at them in waves in that second period, but crucially, they had the players capable of stepping up and making the big plays down the stretch.
If James Horan has brought anything new to the set-up in his first year back on the sideline, he has infused their forward unit with some dynamic young colts who can run with the best of them, but unlike Mayo teams of the past, these boys are confident kickers and scorers.
Roscommon’s Conor Cox has probably been the ‘find of the season’ so far, but Darren Coen can’t be too far behind him. He doesn’t look like the quickest in the world, but his ability to create a couple of yards of shooting space for himself when in possession is brilliant.
As often happens in sport, one person’s misfortune is another’s opportunity and Coen profited from the long injury absence of Cillian O’Connor in the first half of the season.
He took his place, grabbed his chance and grew more confident with each game through the league and the All-Ireland Qualifiers, and now looks set to be one half of a dangerous looking Mayo inside forward unit.
I like to see guys like Coen do well. He is somebody who was dropped off the panel by the previous management and took the circuitous route to establishing himself at senior inter-county level to eventually now becoming a real player of consequence for his side.
He and O’Connor provided a huge attacking threat for Mayo all evening, and you’d imagine that game will do loads to accelerate the latter’s fitness and sharpness after the long injury lay-off.
And Horan also can call on young Fionn McDonagh who looks a real player on the wing, along with the dynamism of James Carr who scored one of the best goals we are likely to see all season.
He showed huge power and pace obviously, but he also displayed the kind of composure in front of goal Mayo have often lacked to finish with such precision high to the keepers right.
Kevin McLoughlin and Jason Doherty will get up and down the pitch all day and are capable of stuffing the stat sheet in terms of possessions, scores, and tackles and whatever else you want. Andy Moran didn’t even see game time last weekend, but you’d imagine he’s still an ace in the pack and capable of making a big impact in a 10-15 minute cameo.
All in all, Mayo look a lot healthier than they did a few weeks ago, and with Lee Keegan coming on late in the game, Seamie O’Shea back on the panel , and Diarmuid O’Connor and Matthew Ruane expected to get back playing at some point during the Super 8s, it makes them a real and present danger for Kerry in Fitzgerald Stadium next weekend.
Unlike the Connacht side who have rolled through one tough qualifier game after another for the past few weeks, and have undoubtedly found their mojo and momentum again, Kerry have been sitting idle since their unimpressive win over Cork in the Munster final.
It’s really difficult to assess just where Kerry are at. Mayo are the only side to beat them since the start of the season, once in Tralee, and again in the league final in Croke Park. Throw in defeats in the league and championship last year and you start to see a trend.
Kerry have had injuries to key men themselves like James O’Donoghue and were also all over the place defensively at times in the two championship games they’ve played. It will be fascinating to see what starting team they go with, and what they try to do differently in defence.
I’m not sure Kerry have the personnel to go full-on man on man with Mayo all over the field just now so it wouldn’t shock supporters to see a slightly more defensive- minded home side next weekend. Both sides will have identified this as the crucial game of the group.
This showpiece in Killarney on Sunday could potentially decide who gets out of the group along with Donegal and progresses to the semi-final.
On the evidence of their victory over Clare, Meath may struggle to take a scalp, and I’m not sure if Donegal look like dropping points to anybody, such has been their form through the Ulster championship.
Of course anything is possible, and perhaps Donegal get knocked off at some point, but there is no escaping the magnitude of this opening quarter-final group gamebetween James Horan and Peter Keane’s charges.
Even though it’s the first of three games, it has a real knockout feel to it already and the ferocity of play and the atmosphere in the stands should reflect what’s at stake.
It will also be the first time that Donie Buckley will be in the opposition coaching box to a Mayo team in championship since he left their ranks for his home county.
His insight into their previous preparation and game planning against Kerry should prove to be an advantage in what is sure to be white-knuckle ride from start to finish.
Like most of these games, they are usually highlighted by a few big moments; goals, fouls, refereeing decisions, and so on.
More often than not, it’s the rest of the stuff that decides the eventual winner.
Decision making and skill sets are the two primary factors that every coach or manager wants to improve during every session.
You can have all the systems and schemes in the world, but the best teams have players who not only have the ability to firstly see a pass, but also the quality to execute it. It’s what separates the good from the great.
Mayo have developed that same idea defensively. Acollective responsibility to see a potential threat and make sure they’re in a position to get to it and snuff it out.
This game will provide a great examination of how Kerry are progressing in that regard.
It’s difficult to beat any team three times in one season as Mayo are attempting to do on Sunday, but Kerry will need to deliver their best performance of the year if they want to ensure that doesn’t happen and put themselves in the driving seat to make the All-Ireland semi-finals.