The chance of claiming a first national title in 18 years is not to be sniffed at but in the event Mayo do fall short of reaching the final tomorrow James Horan seems satisfied with what he has learned from their Division 1 exploits.
“At the start of the league we identified a number of things that we needed to work on,” the manager said following the defeat of Kerry.
We knew we were strong in certain areas but that there were elements of performance which if we could get them better, and put that on top of what we knew we had, that we’d have a very strong team.
The below-par performances against Dublin and Galway notwithstanding, that Mayo find themselves in second place having beaten the table-toppers while starting 29 players is an achievement.
Factor in that Cillian O’Connor, Tom Parsons and Cian Hanley have not lined out due to injury and Seamus O’Shea, David Drake, Conor Diskin and James McCormack have seen game-time as substitutes and nobody can say Horan doesn’t have options (at least in his front eight anyway).
What else can we derive what is shaping up to be Mayo’s best spring in five years?
As disappointing as the back-to-back defeats to Dublin and Galway were, Mayo have by some distance the best defence in Division 1 — their aggregate 71-point concession is seven points better than Tyrone who are closest.
The most they conceded was 14 points in that forgettable defeat to Dublin but twice they have held teams to a total of 10 points (Roscommon and Tyrone) and twice 11 (Cavan and Kerry).
That being said, with the exception of Michael Plunkett there has hardly been an injection of youth into the back-line and Plunkett is 23 this year.
Or should that be “still hungry”. For all the personnel changes Horan has made from game to game, there have been a few ever-presents — Keith Higgins, Aidan O’Shea and Jason Doherty.
Brendan Harrison, Lee Keegan, Donie Vaughan, Fionn McDonagh and Diarmuid O’Connor have each started five games. Stephen Coen has been present in all six outings, on the field at the start in four of them.
Andy Moran has started three games and been introduced in the other three.
We’ve mentioned before the danger of there being hangers-on among the older Mayo brigade considering the lack of retirements but Horan’s pre-Christmas trial matches have done wonders in breaking the hibernation of some of the established players.
We’ve mentioned how familiar the Mayo defence is but at least there are challengers to the established players further up the field.
The trip to New York at the start of May provides Horan with the opportunity to give first Championship starts to the likes of Matthew Ruane and Fionn McDonagh.
Plunkett, Ciarán Treacy and Brian Reape could also make their bows but the real indication Mayo are evolving will be the continued presence of two or three of them in the team throughout the summer.
In the continued absence of Parsons, if Ruane could be Mayo’s equivalent to Monaghan’s Niall Kearns then Mayo have another arrow in their quiver.
“That was a massive part for us leading up to the game — to mark their (Mayo) runners and make sure we can look after that for the team.
I think there was a stat there, 48% of their scores come from their defence, so we knew that was a massive challenge for us as a forward unit as well, so we put a lot of emphasis on that.
Thus spoke Ciarán Kilkenny about the 2017 All-Ireland final. Mayo’s percentage of scores from defence this spring? 14%.
Mayo may have the joint second worst scoring total with Galway behind Cavan but from midfield up they’re doing more to raise flags.
Across their six outings, Andy Moran and Aidan O’Shea stand as the only players to score a mark for Mayo. In fact, Moran’s scored two but there doesn’t appear to be any inclination to fully utilise the experimental rule.
If they really wanted to, O’Shea might be assigned to the edge of the square permanently but short-term gains aren’t in Mayo’s plans and it will have no impact on their one true mission this summe
Possible Championship 15: Robbie Hennelly, Chris Barrett, Brendan Harrison, Keith Higgins; Lee Keegan, Stephen Coen, Paddy Durcan; Donie Vaughan, Matthew Ruane; Fionn McDonagh, Aidan O’Shea, Diarmuid O’Connor; Kevin McLoughlin, Jason Doherty, Cillian O’Connor.