Dean Rock: Lack of Dublin-Mayo spark in keeping with slow-burning championship

We are still waiting for the championship to catch fire, despite the finish line on the horizon

Unlike previous clashes, this weekend's Dublin-Mayo meeting does not seem to have stirred many passions yet. Photograph: Evan Treacy/Inpho

It was on Thursday afternoon, while dodging the kind of rain showers you’d expect during the league, when it occurred to me how little talk there had been all week about Dublin’s latest championship meeting with Mayo.

In any other year, such a low-key build-up is something I would have viewed positively. As a player, preparing for a championship game against Mayo was serious business because it was a rivalry that grabbed the attention of both counties. And beyond.

So, staying in the team bubble and avoiding the chatter was the preference, but it wasn’t always easy when it came around to Dublin-Mayo because invariably people wanted to talk to you ahead of those matches.

How quickly it changes, though. As a supporter now, I’ve been struck this week by the lack of conversation around Sunday’s game.

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Perhaps it’s just a consequence of the competition structure because the cut-throat nature of the championship, while finally in the post, hasn’t arrived just yet.

The All-Ireland final will take place in six weeks and yet the overriding sentiment is the whole thing is only starting to crank up now. There will be an element of sorting the wheat from the chaff this weekend, but even at that only four teams will exit the championship.

It will leave us with preliminary quarter-finals next week and then on the weekend of June 29th-30th the championship will finally shake off the cobwebs for the All-Ireland quarter-finals. But that’s just four weeks before it all ends and the tent is packed away for another year.

The truth is the championship could do with a jolt this weekend – Louth beating Kerry or Mayo beating Dublin would certainly cause some commotion, though while the former might be fine, from a purely parochial point of view I’d be hoping the latter doesn’t materialise.

There is a significant prize on offer for topping the group, gaining a week without a competitive fixture shouldn’t be underestimated. Consider the All-Ireland quarter-final last year between Dublin and Mayo at Croke Park.

We beat Sligo at Breffni Park on June 18th in our last group game. On that same day, Mayo lost to Cork at the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick. The result was something of a surprise because Mayo had beaten Kerry and Louth in their opening matches.

But while we made our way back to Dublin having secured an All-Ireland quarter-final two weeks later, on that same evening Mayo were left to re-examine and frantically replan their entire season. All their best laid plans had been ripped apart because of that defeat, which left them third in the group and facing an away preliminary quarter-final.

So, just seven days later Kevin McStay’s men played Galway in Salthill. Mayo won, but it had been a proper, tough, physical championship affair between local rivals.

As the Mayo players were emptying themselves to get over the line in Salthill, we had already put in a week of recovery from the Sligo game and were starting to focus on the quarter-finals, fresh and full of energy.

Mayo came to Croke Park the weekend after beating Galway and at half-time in our quarter-final, only a point separated the teams, in our favour. But we ultimately ran out 2-17 to 0-11 winners, with Mayo only scoring three points in the second half.

We played some really good football in the second half of that game but I wonder did fatigue play a part in Mayo’s performance? Perhaps the physical and mental exertions of the previous three weeks caught up with them.

Of the four teams who topped the groups last year, three won their respective All-Ireland quarter-final – and it could very easily have been all four, as Armagh’s exit to Monaghan only came after a penalty shoot-out.

The physical demands of playing three successive games are clear, but I mentioned the mental impact because that can be just as draining on players during such a hectic period.

As an intercounty player, you spend a lot of time stuck in meeting rooms, analysing the opposition or reviewing games, seeing where you can improve, that kind of stuff. If you are playing three games in a row, that’s a lot of video analysis and clips to review. Lads can get fed up with it pretty quickly, mental fatigue sets in.

You don’t get as much time on the training pitch either because you are moving from recovery mode to another game almost immediately. Some guys do enjoy that aspect, just doing a few light drills and a bit of tactical work before playing again but I’ve always felt it’s so important to be at the pitch of it in training, because how you train is how you play.

On top of all that, if you enter the preliminary quarter-finals on the back of a defeat, you are left questioning yourself too. Doubts can creep in. On a purely practical level, you might get home late on Sunday night after that last group game, then you are in work early Monday morning and people naturally want to chat to you about the game and what went wrong. The general mood and air around the place is kind of heavy. The whole experience can become a downer.

But with winning, everything seems to roll seamlessly onward. The air is lighter. Momentum is hard to quantify, but you are a much better team with it in your dressingroom than without it.

Armagh and Galway are two sides with massive momentum right now and while both are guaranteed involvement in the championship beyond this weekend, the outcome of Sunday’s game will set each off to the knockout stages along very different paths.

The winner will have two weeks to prepare for an All-Ireland quarter-final, where they will meet a team playing their third competitive game on the bounce. As a table-topper, you will also probably avoid meeting the likes of Dublin and Kerry at that stage of the competition.

It can take very little for things to come undone. Managers can react to defeats in odd ways, especially when the pressure comes on towards the business-end of competitions. They might go off script and change what had been working fine all year. One defeat has the potential to change a season.

Either Galway or Armagh will bounce towards the quarter-finals full of confidence and brimming with belief and momentum. The loser, though, will find themselves in a very difficult place.

But this is the format we have right now, and I believe it’s only right the team finishing top of their group gets the prize of a two-week break.

In fact, I feel the GAA should incentivise it even more by conducting the quarter-final draw at the same time as the preliminary quarter-final draw next Monday.

By having them take place simultaneously, it would allow the four table-toppers to focus on the match from which their opponents will emerge. That might be tough on the preliminary quarter-finalists, but it would simply be another consequence of not finishing top of your group.

I understand the regulations strive to avoid repeat provincial final pairings and also repeat matches from round one of the group stages, and so that in turn makes it difficult to conduct the draw in advance of knowing the preliminary quarter-final winners. But the GAA should consider getting rid of the repeat pairings stipulation.

So what if there are repeat pairings? What exactly is the GAA’s issue with that?

Would it not actually add to the colour of the championship to have teams who have built up a rivalry facing each other again?

It might actually get people talking about the matches.