Will it be a battle royal or shadow boxing as Connacht rivals meet in opener?

Not since 1998 and 1999 has there been this much fanfare about Connacht championship games, writes John Divilly

Will it be a battle royal or shadow boxing as Connacht rivals meet in opener?

Over 34,000 people flocked to Castlebar for the first round clash in 1998 while a year later over 34,000 supporters braved the stormy elements of Tuam Stadium to see Mayo wrestle the Connacht title off Galway. Of course, 34,000 hadn’t pre-purchased tickets in either of these fixtures. The good old-fashioned USA biscuit tins were the preferable mode of business back then. Tap and go had a different meaning too.

Everyone is expecting a classic in Castlebar tomorrow. Everyone wants to see a physical bruiser of a game, following the antics of the national league game played in Pearse Stadium a few weeks ago. “The Battle, Mayo v Galway, Part II”.

We mightn’t get it. In fact, I would expect both sets of players to be extremely disciplined and cagey tomorrow. No player will want to mess up months of planning by throwing an unwelcome dig into the ribs and getting caught. There is a perception Galway have become very aggressive in their play. They have but it’s legitimate and we’re all delighted to see it. The reality is different though. They’ve just decided, as a group, that they will no longer be bullied by the top four. The problem is, the top four weren’t expecting this new edgy, determined Galway to emerge. They are finding it difficult to accept that Galway would finally like to be at their table and dislodge one of them in the process. The cheek of those Galway lads!

Conor Lane, Sean Hurson, Barry Tiernan and their umpires are, I’m sure, more nervous than the players. They will have watched the league encounter. They will have ear-marked potential flashpoints and the temperamental players. They will be anticipating scuffles, who are the perpetrators and who are the ones that will sprint to the aid of their desperate comrades. It’s quite simple really. Every GAA player worth his salt can mind his own patch. He shouldn’t and doesn’t need any hero to come to his rescue. If you give away a foul, retreat quickly and shut your mouth. If players can’t do this, they deserve whatever colour card the referee deems adequate. I hope the officials will act on this quickly tomorrow and then we can get on with the football.

What kind of football will we get? There is a lot of talk that Galway will flood their defence, suck Mayo in and hit them on the counter. However, I feel Mayo will also adopt this style of play. Neither team will want to concede an early goal. Neither team will want to energise the other with soft frees or space to be creative.

Which players will find the room to be creative tomorrow? Galway must look for Paul Conroy, Johnny Heaney, Shane Walsh, Sean Armstrong and Damien Comer to create the opportunities. They have the capabilities to prise open the Mayo defence and capitalise on moments of indecision or poor concentration. Mayo will look to Paddy Durcan, Stephen Coen, Keith Higgins, Kevin McLaughlin and Aidan O’Shea to punch holes in the Galway defence. Penetration is key before the offload to Andy Moran, Conor Loftus and Cillian O’Connor.

O’Connor is named to start. However, I have my doubts if Cillian, Seamus O’Shea or Ger Cafferkey will be in the first fifteen. Cillian and Seamus are only returning after lengthy lay-offs and have hardly any football played. They’ll be either very fresh or very rusty. They are high-risk inclusions for Stephen Rochford but, then again, Stephen knows them best and it is a high-stakes game.

If they don’t start I would expect Jason Doherty to replace Cillian and Aidan O’Shea to push to midfield. This could provide an opening for Evan Regan upfront. As for Ger Cafferkey starting at full-back and marking Damien Comer, this is surely far too risky from a Mayo point of view.

The All-Star Belmullet bullet Barrett will pick up Comer. The Galway captain is dynamic and it will be no surprise to see Mayo operate a double-up marking job on Comer, possibly with the Belmullet duo of Barrett and O’Donoghue. Kevin McLaughlin will naturally drift back to provide extra cover.

I expect Galway to play as selected. There are cases to be made for the inclusion of Peter Cooke, Eamon Brannigan and Ian Burke. But with Cooke currently sitting final year exams in NUIG, Brannigan only returning from injury and Burke only returned from his Corofin exploits, they’ll just need to be ready when they get the nod. Other Galway players that will possibly be called upon to make an impact are David Wynne, Johnny Duane and Sean Kelly at the back and Michael Daly, Eamon Brannigan and Adrian Varley up front.

Eamon Brannigan has had a tremendous 2018 and hit 2-7 from play in the League. He has also won countless frees for Barry McHugh to convert. McHugh’s proficiency with his free-taking in the NFL was exemplary, converting 19 of 21 strikes. A lot of these frees were by no means straightforward. Galway can also call on Sean Armstrong and Shane Walsh to hit the dead-balls. On the Mayo side, the dead-ball duties will once again fall to Cillian O’Connor (if he plays) or the trio of Jason Doherty, Conor Loftus and/or Kevin McLaughlin.

Two magnificent Galway fans will be watching edgily from above. Two Tommy’s. Tommy Varden, our proud and loyal sponsor, was called ashore two weeks ago. We were so privileged and honoured to have donned his great name during good and not so good times. Thank you Tommy V. He followed another great Galway legend who passed away just days before. The lovely Tommy Kelly, the darling of Castlemitchel, Co Kildare but who settled in Loughrea in 1966. We fondly called him Tommy Steak and he minded us like grandchildren. Both men were witty, fearless and full of life. To borrow a line from the Sawdoctors chant, ’Tommy K’, ”this song’s in his memory, immortal, Tommy K”.

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