Draw produces few surprises in predictable championship

Football’s declining competitiveness and new hurling format keep thrills in short supply

Dublin’s Philip McMahon celebrates in front of Hill 16 after Dublin’s victory over Tyrone. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Dublin’s Philip McMahon celebrates in front of Hill 16 after Dublin’s victory over Tyrone. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

 

Much of the steam produced by the annual championship draws has evaporated at this stage because of two influences: the new format in hurling, which means all counties play each other in the province regardless and the declining competitiveness of the football championships in Leinster and Munster.

Added to that is the repetitiveness of the fixtures.

Clare, a robust presence in Division Two in recent seasons, are a good if anguished example.

They face Limerick in Munster’s opening round but if successful, must play Kerry for the fifth time in four championships. Clare manager Colm Collins’s demeanour as he read out the semi-final draw on RTÉ was one of resignation.

In truth, though, a province of six counties has a limited range of possibilities, particularly with Cork and Kerry – as last season’s finalists – being seeded into the semi-finals even though they could have drawn each other.

The draw does present Tipperary with an opportunity to atone for this summer’s very poor defeat by Cork in the provincial semi-final.

But otherwise new Kerry manager Peter Keane has a fairly straightforward task to extend the county’s championship sequence to seven-in-a-row, just one short of the previous high point of eight, achieved between 1975 and ‘82.

In Connacht there will be some variety in 2019, as champions Galway and Mayo can’t meet until the provincial final, which would be for the first time in five years.

Galway of course have defeated their neighbours in each of the past three years, twice in semi-finals and once in the quarters, last May.

Mayo have had a change of management and the return of James Horan will be interesting, as under his previous watch, 2011-14, the county never lost to Galway. The champions will have home advantage but in Horan’s last championship visit to Salthill, his team won by 17 points.

Mayo will probably have to negotiate a way past Roscommon, who play Leitrim first, who will also be under new management – as yet to be decided – and who have won Connacht more recently than Mayo even if later in the same year, 2017, they took a heavy replay beating from the latter in Croke Park in the counties’ most recent championship encounter.

Greatest resistance

Dublin’s bid to extend the record Leinster sequence they achieved last June to eight looks likely to encounter its greatest resistance in the semi-finals, should Jim Gavin’s team as expected account for the winners of Louth and Wexford.

Kildare, who finished 2018 as easily the second most successful Leinster team by qualifying for the Super 8s, will be hot favourites to defeat Wicklow and reach a last-four date with the champions, who they pushed hard in the 2017 provincial final.

The caveat for Cian O’Neill is that the recent championship ended in calamity with defeat by Carlow.

Ulster champions Donegal are drawn away to All-Ireland finalists Tyrone. That mightn’t be too bad because although the latter won August’s Super 8 fixture in Ballybofey, Mickey Harte’s team don’t have a fortress record in Omagh and lost both of their big championship matches there, against Monaghan and Dublin, during the summer.

Monaghan’s Conor McManus looked wary when asked for reaction, mindful that what will be a fourth championship encounter with neighbours Cavan since 2013 follows in a sequence of wins for his county but by margins never greater than a score.

From the perspective of smaller counties it was interesting to hear both Carlow’s Paul Broderick and Leitrim’s Emlyn Mulligan refer to the priority of the league.

All Star nominee Broderick said that the county’s first task would be to preserve their new status in Division Three after March’s promotion whereas Mulligan hoped that his county could challenge to emulate the same feat next spring.

Hurling was a done deal with the fixtures’ sequence in the Munster and Leinster championships already decided.

Speaking at the AIG launch of the new Dublin jersey earlier in the day, county hurling captain and All Star nominee Chris Crummey, was positive about the new system, introduced this year even though the season ended for the county on the June bank holiday weekend, albeit after an encouraging campaign that saw his team leading as all four matches entered injury-time but three of which ended in defeat.

Early close

“Someone said to me that it we were like ladies’ football and if there was a hooter after 70 minutes, we’d have been in a Leinster final with four wins! We were unlucky but then when it happens in four games there are learnings and lessons that we need to take on board. Obviously there are a lot of positives from those games but next year if we’re in that situation we have to close the deal.”

Dublin, still in the process of choosing a successor for Pat Gilroy, forced away from the manager’s role by work commitments, had an early close to their season but Crummey was happy with the format.

“To be honest with you, I prefer the new Championship system, the way it was last year (2018). Obviously you want to be hurling throughout the summer, as a player there’s nothing worse than if you have a four-week or even a three-week gap between games.

“The training is much better because you’re just focused on skills and stuff like that. No, I much rather just go game by game, especially compared to the old system where you could have a six-week break or something.”

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