WITH the last two games of the Championship qualifiers to be played out this weekend, the All-Ireland quarter-final line-up is all but complete.

With respect, I don’t think anyone is pondering too much over the Westmeath-Mayo clash. This was exactly the tie Mayo were hoping for; another game to get their confidence back without too much risk attached.

Westmeath can only be too aware of their position in the food chain after that anticipated dressing down by Dublin. I can’t see anything other than a comprehensive defeat for the Leinster finalists. Mayo should find themselves preparing for a quarter-final clash with Tyrone a lot wiser. The benefit of regular games is not to be underestimated and Stephen Rochford will be happier in hindsight to have missed the opportunity of another Connacht title.

It also creates a buzz within the squad. Players are generally happier not having a massive lead-in time to big games. You end up carrying excess mental baggage when you are focused on a big game for too long. Playing every weekend, or ideally every second weekend, brings a sense of freedom. With an unbalanced training-to-games ratio, you are relying on A v B games to vent that tension and that’s not always a good thing. You end up wishing the weeks away and risk over-planning. For me, too many team meetings diluted my enjoyment of the game. Playing games in quick succession definitely delivers a more greater sense of joie de vivre. You are buzzing from the previous weekend’s win and team meetings are second to player recovery.

With games coming thick and fast, I’m sure Cork are in the same boat as Mayo, to an extent. However, a different type of buzz is generated when you weigh up the prospect of playing Donegal as opposed to Westmeath. Cork will be confident they have learned and progressed as a team after wins over Limerick and Longford. But facing Donegal is a significant jump in standard.

The fine line between winning and losing was that huge free attempt from Michael Murphy in the Ulster final. A few minutes later, Tyrone were celebrating. This was a very impressive recovery from Tyrone. The sort of recovery only possible from a team that were expecting to win and not hoping to win.

Donegal were left in a very different place at the final whistle — different in terms of the manner of the defeat and more their inability to close out the game on two occasions in the second half, exposing their weaknesses. Donegal must be aware that there are some critical parameters lacking within their team.

It’s been remarked upon more than once since the rise of this particular Donegal squad that they lack strength in their panel. This was evident again during the Ulster final, where three substitutions were made as late as the last three minutes of normal time. Even more telling was the fact that Anthony Thompson was returned to action in the 67th minute after been taken off less than 15 minutes previous. That act alone is sure to have played on the minds of the unused subs from that day in the last few training sessions up north. Donegal are still hurting.

Cork, on the other hand, are long since recovered from their provincial championship exit and will come into this game with a nice bit of confidence. It would be difficult to argue against an attempt to mimic Tyrone’s Ulster final tactics as far as Cork are concerned. At times, Clones had the look of a rugby game, in that there was a coordinated line of Tyrone players stretched in a flat line from one sideline to the other. On hitting this line, the Donegal players were forced to pass the ball backwards to retain possession, hoping to gain ground by a runner coming from deep.

It’s a bold plan to go with, and full credit to Tyrone for sticking to it. I don’t know if I agree with leaving Donegal to collect their own kick-outs unchallenged.

This is what they are used to and the opportunity is there for Cork to unsettle them in this department.

Instead of pushing up on the defenders and attempting to stop quick kick-outs,

Tyrone instead opted to retreat to the half way line and build a wall of players.

Donegal were then faced with the challenge of playing risky long balls over them or take their chances smashing through the wall. A lot of teams impose similar tactics but not always as effective as Tyrone demonstrated in the Ulster final. Defending as a group sounds logical in theory but can be a big challenge to implement. Derry are proof of this.

With time up during their game against Tipperary, their heavily populated defence failed to pick up simple runs by the Tipp attackers; a classic case of players prioritising the team system over their individual defensive duties.

I would prefer to see Cork push up and pressure the Donegal kick-out. This game is a golden opportunity for Cork to write off recent hurtful losses in one go.

Donegal are a top team and victory would bring massive confidence.

After the Longford game, Mark Collins admitted that he felt he and a few of his team-mates football careers were on the line if they lost that match. I can understand the fear he referred to.

Playing inter-county football nowadays is more of a vocation than a pleasure and success really is everything.

A couple of barren years will force any player to contemplate the inevitable. Suddenly the shoe is on the other foot for this game as Donegal’s legacy is slowly being tarnished with yet another missed opportunity for silverware.

If Donegal do prevail, you will be likely to hear the likes of Rory Kavanagh confess similar fears. I think Donegal are there for the taking.

That heavy burden those players carried with them after the Tyrone loss will still be lingering. Cork will carry no such baggage with them. I’m not completely writing Donegal off, but heavy legs, a predictable game plan and a refreshed Cork team might just finish them off.

No, I’m not losing the run of myself here.

I’m aware that wins over Limerick and Longford does not exorcise the painful reality of championship losses to Tipperary and Kildare.

There is evidence of steady progress within this Cork team and I think this game, with this opposition, has fallen perfectly for them to return to the top table, where Cork feel they belong.


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