When a team concedes 3-18 in a senior inter-county Gaelic football match at this stage of the season, questions have to be asked.
Yes, Mayo were vastly superior than they were in their 0-12 to 0-10 win over Sligo in the Connacht final three weeks ago and fully merited their big victory, however, Down were shockingly poor.
Defensively, they allowed Mayo to cut them open on numerous occasions and the ease with which Jason Doherty — who took his goal expertly — and a reinvigorated Michael Conroy were allowed in on Brendan McVeigh was hard to believe. This was an All-Ireland quarter-final after all, and few would expect any genuine contender for honours to allow themselves to be so badly exposed.
Saturday was not the first time Down have taken a serious pasting.
Donegal took them for 2-18 in the Ulster final and Cork knocked them out last season after posting 2-20. Those are hurling scorelines and point to the paucity of their defence and also how they are approaching the game tactically under James McCartan. Compare how they set up under McCartan, an All Star forward in his day, compared to Laois and Kildare, with two coaches who are former defenders.
Their personnel has changed too. The team that lined out in the 2010 All-Ireland final against Cork has changed radically, and they badly miss the input of Marty Clarke, Danny Hughes, Paul McComisky and Declan Rooney.
After such heavy defeats in the past 12 months, Down will have to look at how they set themselves up and ask the question; can they win if they continually go out and just play 15 on 15 with zero regard for their lack of pace and cohesion at the back?
Despite the margin of their victory and the tremendous tally they hit, James Horan will know his side will need to be more clinical if they are to defeat Dublin in four weeks.
They shot 12 wides (six in each half) on Saturday and they took the wrong option on a few occasions too.
Against a really impressive, hardworking and tigerish Dublin rear-guard, who are only conceding an average of 0-13 per championship game this year, Mayo will need to work on their shooting from distance and accuracy.
They will also need wing-backs Lee Keegan and Colm Boyle to bomb forward once or twice in both halves in the semi-final to try and raise a few white flags. Paul Flynn and Bryan Cullen drop very deep to help out their defence and it is an opportunity for raiding defenders to hurt Dublin on the scoreboard.
After Saturday it is difficult to fully assess where Mayo are at.
They have improved, but have they improved sufficiently to defeat the All-Ireland champions in a month’s time? They will face Dublin after only three championship outings, two of them facile victories.
Perhaps they will be slightly undercooked for the hot furnace they will face in the semi-final.
In that context, the knee injury to their captain, talisman and current All Star Andy Moran could prove a mortal wound. I had a drink with Moran before Christmas at the Mayo club All Stars in Westport and he was an absolute gentleman and great company.
He is a terrifically positive and gregarious character with an infectious desire to do well for his county, and it was very easy to see how James Horan selected him to be his on-field leader and the voice of the players in the dressing room.
Moran leads by example and he was having a scorching game on Saturday before he went down with a cruciate injury. He had been involved in 2-3 of their scores and had notched a point himself from 15 plays.
To assess his influence on the field, we only have to remember how Michael Shields and Marc Ó Sé struggled with him last season. Everybody in GAA is hugely disappointed that his season was over, and considering how hard he worked to recover from the broken leg sustained last autumn training with the International Rules squad, it is cruel for him, Mayo, and Ballaghadereen.
If he is out for the Dublin game, he would be a colossal loss.
A quick word on Dublin. They are in a great position to reach the final. They have not played really well at any stage and yet are still in the last four. Pat Gilroy was able to introduce young Ciarán Kilkenny and blood him in senior championship football and his panel seems to be getting stronger and stronger. He has used almost 30 players in this year’s championship campaign and the likes of Ross McConnell was not even togged last Saturday.
The professionalism of the Dublin set-up is incredible and regardless of who wins this year’s All-Ireland they look like a county that could become incredibly dominant (outside of Leinster as well) over the next few years.
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