Munster's big two get early chance to test their might
YESTERDAY saw the regulation stages of the National Football League, sponsored by Church and General, come to an unusually decisive conclusion. At present, with just one series of matches in Division Four remaining, only two play offs are needed and all but one of the quarter finalists' identities are known.
Match of the next round promises to be the re run of last July's Munster final between Cork, who top Division Two, and Kerry who secured the last quarter final place in the first division by finishing fourth.
Donegal's injury time equaliser against Kildare - who had put up with a bomb scare when overnighting on Saturday - at Ballyshannon pushed them on to nine points, along with Derry and Meath whose meeting at Celtic Park - threatened by a blanket of snow on the pitch at midday saw the League holders win by a comfortable three points.
The calculators we'd been promised all weekend were whipped out to determine by whatever arcane method Croke Park had decreed - that the pecking order would be: Donegal, Meath and Derry. Kildare and Laois must play off to decide who accompanies Clare to Division Two next season.
One point about the outcome worth making is that with the Laois Tyrone match starting half an hour earlier than the Ballyshannon fixture, it would have been possible for Kildare and Donegal to contrive an accommodation.
Had Kildare won, they would have moved clear of relegation whereas Donegal would have still been guaranteed a quarter final place. Luckily such sordid conspiracies are alien to the Gael and unknown outside the sphere of foreign games.
It was actually clearer cut in Division Two, where the greatest potential for a traffic jam existed. Cork had a hard earned victory in Armagh, with Colin Corkery scoring 1-7, which was enough to extinguish the hopes of the home team.
Afterwards, Billy Morgan seemed vexed about playing Kerry, saying: "I think, both managers would have preferred to avoid each other before the Munster championship," before adding: "we'll be putting our strongest team out from now on".
Martin McHugh's Cavan tidied up the picture by beating Louth in a robust encounter at Breffni Park and securing promotion for the second successive season. Cavan now meet Derry in the quarter finals for the fourth time in eight years.
Westmeath, well beaten by Leitrim and Down, ditto by Dublin, had already been relegated before yesterday.
Mayo wrapped up the only 100 per cent record in the League by beating Fermanagh to ensure that they reach a quarter final against Meath. Monaghan saw off Roscommon by 1-14 to 1-12 in the vital match concerning the other promotion place from Division Three.
Fermanagh's defeat now involves them in a relegation play off with Antrim, who have risen from the dead after defeating Galway to join their Ulster colleagues on four points. The Lazarus award in this division, however, goes to Wexford who were propping up the division with two matches left but by beating Sligo - now relegated the O'Byrne Cup holders have leapfrogged to safety.
Finally, in Division Four, Wicklow need only a draw from their final match, against Waterford, to nail down a quarter final rendezvous with Donegal.
The Railway Cup hurling semifinals were won by Munster and Leinster.