By Stephen Barry
Three of football’s ‘Big 4’ are in action this weekend, with All-Ireland champions Kerry, Mayo and Donegal all facing tough tests. Cork will be looking to get back on track against Clare, while the best of the rest in Leinster battle for semi-final spots alongside Dublin.
Here are the storylines of the weekend’s GAA action…
A four-in-a-row of Connacht titles, a four-in-a-row of victories against Galway and 10 goals scored by the green and red in those victories have made Mayo v Galway a one-way rivalry in recent years.
But the elephant in the room is the absence of James Horan, who transformed Mayo from pretenders to serious contenders. Sunday will be the first major test for his replacements, Noel Connelly and Pat Holmes.
Kevin Walsh is also new in the Galway corner and his team have already visited New York and Leitrim to earn their shot at the JJ Nestor Cup holders. They will miss talented forward Shane Walsh, though.
Last year Kieran McGeeney was the peacemaker during an All-Ireland quarter-final which Armagh lost by a point. This year he has been insisting that Donegal “are not in the same ballpark” as the physicality of Dublin and Kerry…
Not that Sunday’s clash of the Ulster totems will be lacking in that regard. Not even doctors are safe, if last year is anything to go by.
Michael Murphy and Paddy McBrearty saved the 2012 champions from Armagh but how much space will they be allowed by McGeeney’s men, following on from Tyrone’s abrasive defence in the preliminary round.
Kerry have met Tipperary in Semple Stadium first-up after all three of their most recent All-Ireland final appearances. However the open spaces of the Thurles venue have rarely proved a daunting setting for the Kingdom.
But even if Tipperary’s young guns can shackle the returning Colm Cooper, the Kingdom bench features the county’s last two Sam Maguire-winning captains, the 2015 Footballer of the Year and a Young Footballer of the Year.
Clare have closed the gap on Cork and Kerry year-on-year since 2011. They would fancy their chances too against a Cork side rehabilitating from a League final hammering but for an injury crisis sweeping the panel.
Alan O’Connor comes straight into the Rebel midfield 22 months after retiring from inter-county football. He will be surrounded in the middle-third by O’Driscolls, with brothers Brian, Kevin and Colm all starting.
Wicklow finished below Carlow and Waterford in Division 4, counties that have suffered Championship hammerings to lesser lights than Meath. The Royal County opened 2014 with a 28-point defeat of Carlow, and a similar outcome wouldn’t be out of question.
Westmeath and Wexford have both suffered League relegations this spring but the former have recovered with three goals and a win away to Louth.
See you next Saturday! Jason Ryan and Tomás Ó Flatharta will meet again in Tullamore after their sides drew 0-16 apiece. Ó Flatharta was left rueing Tommy Moolick’s late leveller, while Ryan will hope to see his side cut the free count, having conceded 0-9 from placed balls.