Donegal open with daunting challenge


GAELIC GAMES:ALL-IRELAND football champions Donegal have been drawn against their predecessors as Ulster champions Tyrone in next year’s championship. The draws for all of the GAA provincial football and hurling championships were made last night in Croke Park and Jim McGuinness’s team have been handed a bracing prospect to focus their minds over the winter.

Mickey Harte’s Tyrone ran the champions closer than anyone else in this year’s provincial championship and it took a great save by Paul Durcan from Martin Penrose to preserve the three-point margin in injury-time.

At least Donegal have been spared another preliminary round draw; that distinction goes next season to Armagh and Cavan, who are on their second early start having lost to Donegal last May in the provincial opener.

The champions are also on the harder side of the draw with the counties they defeated in the last two Ulster finals – Down and Derry – playing in the quarter-final from which the opponents for Donegal-Tyrone will emerge.

All-Ireland finalists Mayo are also chasing a three-in-a-row in their province and the Connacht draw has been about as hard as possible for James Horan’s team.

The counties that have won 17 out of the last 18 Connacht titles are on the same side of a lop-sided draw with Mayo set to face Galway in their first outing and the winners to play Roscommon in the provincial semi-final.

On the other side of the draw, Leitrim and Sligo look to have a place in the final between them. Sligo were narrowly defeated in this year’s provincial decider and they open their campaign in London and will play either New York or Leitrim in the semi-finals.

Not that they’ll take it for granted. Ten years ago Leitrim were taken to extra time by the exiles in Gaelic Park before pulling through by just two points.

In Leinster Dublin, under the new management of Jim Gavin, who is to be unveiled this morning at a Parnell Park media conference, will be looking for an eighth provincial title in nine years next summer. Their campaign opens against Westmeath or Carlow and they are on course for a semi-final with Kildare, who they last met at the same stage last year.

Of course this summer the assumption was that the counties would contest the Leinster final but that’s not how it turned out.

On the other side this year’s finalists Meath, expected to be under the baton of Mick O’Dowd, whose appointment is to be ratified next week, look most likely to advance to the final.

If the biggest cheers in Munster probably came from the provincial council who have got the prospect of a Cork-Kerry final boosting the coffers to warm their winter, the loudest groans must have emanated from Tipperary, who find themselves playing Kerry for a fourth successive year.

Cork will be wary about their opener against Limerick, who 10 seasons ago beat them in Páirc Uí Chaoimh – the last time either Cork or Kerry were beaten by a county apart from each other in the provincial championship – and who have given them a fair tussle on occasions since.

All-Ireland hurling champions Kilkenny have ended up on – as well as defining – the harder side of the draw. For the first time in eight years they go into the championship without the tag of provincial champions. As a result they will face Offaly for what will be the first time in five years in the quarter-finals. Should they win, they will play either Wexford, who they defeated in last year’s championship, or Dublin, who they walloped in this year’s.

Defending champions Galway, whose big win over Kilkenny was the result of the season and who won their first Leinster title since their migration into the province in 2009, have a campaign reminiscent of the old days when they face whoever survives the preliminary matches.

Amongst those counties are London, debuting in the province having campaigned in Ulster in the past, Antrim, Westmeath, Laois and Carlow. Westmeath will start in the preliminary round against Antrim, opponents they defeated last May.

The Munster hurling championship will once again begin with a meeting between Limerick and Tipperary. At the beginning of the season just concluded, John Allen’s team pushed the provincial champions all the way in Semple Stadium before losing out in the last 10 minutes.

Tipp will be under new management following the appointment of All-Ireland winning coach Eamon O’Shea.

Another fixture that is a repeat this year sees David Fitzgerald take his Clare team into action against the county he previously managed, Waterford.

Cork have broken away from Tipperary’s stifling embrace, as the counties find themselves on different sides of the draw for the first time in what will be six years. In that time the Leesiders have won just one of the five championship meetings.

Dates and venues will be sorted out by the provincial councils in the coming weeks.

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