League chasers racing for the winning post
THE Allianz Football League may lack the glamour and glitz of the All-Ireland championships but it's a greater test of durability, with all counties playing seven times in two months, including four games in 22 days in March.
If the championship is the equivalent of the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the league is the Aintree Grand National, a gruelling slog over 112 games across four divisions before delivering the four semi-finalists in Division 1 and the promotion/relegation winners/losers in all divisions.
It's down to the final round of divisional games in this year's NFL and while some questions have already been answered, the majority will emerge across all four divisions at around 4.30 tomorrow.
DIVISION 1: THREE SAFELY OVER THE FINAL FENCE
Dublin, Tyrone and Kildare have touched down safely over the last fence and are winding up for the run-on. They will find out tomorrow who will join them on the four-way gallop to the finish.
All three have run extremely well overall but each had problems at one fence. Kildare clattered hard into their particular Becher's Brook, which had been erected especially high by Dublin.
There were fears that it might disrupt Kildare's rhythm but they recovered well and have jumped carefully since then. Tyrone made a mess against Cork down the back straight but didn't allow it to break their stride, while Dublin's idling patch (they scored only two points in the last 15 minutes) cost them ground at the Tyrone fence. Otherwise, Jim Gavin's men were foot-perfect.
The trio are now in the happy position of being able to take a breather tomorrow, having already booked a semi-final place with one round to play.
In effect, they are facing a practice fence, which is quite a luxury in such a competitive group. Despite the blip against Tyrone, Dublin have been the most fluent of all, scoring 28 points more and conceding three points less than anybody else, in an impressive game average – for 1-17, against 1-10.
And while Tyrone, Kildare and whoever else completes the semi-final line-up aren't exactly novices in a big-race finish, Dublin will have the advantage of being on what is very much a home track.
Tyrone are enjoying a whole new enthusiasm for gruelling contests, while Kildare's confidence has been boosted considerably by the manner in which they have adapted to elite class after being in Division 2 last year. The U-21s further increased the value of Kildare's stock when winning the Leinster title last Wednesday night.
Cork, winners of this race for the past three years, have switched off at times over the last two months, as if worried that a strong early pace can't be maintained for the full season.
Despite that, they have eased themselves into the best position of the chasing pack as they approach the last fence which, if successfully negotiated, will take them into the semi-finals. And, as they showed over the last three leagues, they quicken impressively once the finish line is in sight.
Mayo's jumping has been erratic, soaring impressively over Kerry and Donegal but losing momentum by clipping the top of the four other fences. A touch higher would have taken them over safely (they lost to Tyrone and Kildare by a point each and to Down by two points), but they are facing a very big obstacle in Cork tomorrow.
And with Cork needing a big jump too, the signs are ominous for Mayo, and defeat could drag them into the relegation pit.
Donegal give the impression that they know exactly what they're doing and that, with their sights fixed firmly on big races later in the year, they will be happy once they avoid finishing in the last two tomorrow.
A broadly similar policy worked for them last year but, as Gold Cup winners, more would have been expected on their return to action this year.
However well they disguise it, falling at the Kildare, Tyrone, Cork and Mayo fences must have a made a little dent in their confidence. They showed last year that they can regather pace quickly after remounting, but being near the back of the field in any race is not what's expected of All-Ireland champions.
If Kerry don't deliver a good performance tomorrow, their supporters will be asking for a dope test. They are already bewildered over how the highest pedigree horse in training, with a proven record of success for over 100 years, has hit so many fences, been out-galloped on the flat and looked as if it had been replaced by a hopeless 'ringer' in green-and-gold.
One goal in six games, no goal for the last 6hrs 43 mins, a match average of under 0-9 per game and the lowest total score of all 32 counties across the four divisions underlines just how out-of-sorts Kerry have been.
However, they will be encouraged by a bold leap over Cork last time out, a sign perhaps that they have shaken off whatever virus afflicted them earlier.
They need another big effort against Tyrone tomorrow while also hoping that some other results go their way. Otherwise, they won't even be eligible for this race next year.
That's almost certainly the fate which awaits Down, who are trailing the field at the final fence after attracting trouble all over the course.
Barring all sorts of drama for themselves and others at the final fence, they will be running in lower company next spring.
Title odds: Dublin evs, Tyrone 7/2, Cork 5/1, Kildare 11/2, Mayo 16/1, Donegal 33/1
Relegation: Kerry 4/7, Mayo 3/1, Donegal 7/2 (bookies assume that Down have no chance of survival, although technically if tomorrow's games produce some freak results they could avoid the drop)
DIVISION 2: THREE
PRE-SEASON FAVOURITES FAIL to last the pace
Westmeath have been the big success story in this group, outpacing their rivals with a somewhat unexpected turn of foot, which has ensured they will be racing in Division 1 company next year.
The only unbeaten county in any division, they are in the comfortable position of being able to treat tomorrow's game with Derry as a practice fence.
In contrast, it's the real deal for Derry, for whom a point would be enough to ensure that they join Westmeath in the elite class next year. Derry took a fall at the first fence in Galway but remounted and built up a steady rhythm which now leaves their fate in their own hands with the added bonus of running on their own course.
For reasons which weren't apparent, given their erratic tendencies, Galway were pre-race favourites to outpace their seven rivals. However, as has been their wont for several seasons, they ran inconsistently. They out-jumped Derry at the first fence and matched Westmeath at the third but despite taking three points from the top two on the table, they are now reliant on unlikely permutations in tomorrow's games to earn promotion.
That's down to being comprehensively outrun by Louth and Longford, who beat them by a combined total of 14 points. That's not the sort of form that gets anybody into elite class and represents yet another flat spring campaign by Galway.
They need to beat Armagh, and for Westmeath and Wexford to win their games, if they are to snatch promotion.
Laois, pre-season second favourites behind Galway to win the title, have mirrored the westerners' inconsistency and are now similarly placed as they rely on others doing them favours if they are to take the second promotion slot. That's assuming, of course, they stay upright against Wexford, which is by no means certain. Like Galway, their form hasn't been sufficiently consistent to land any prize.
Once again, Louth have defied pre-race odds (they were backed for relegation with Longford) and would be most unlucky to make the drop. It's still technically possible but, having hung on to the field in tough conditions, they are fancied to get in a bold jump against Longford at home in Drogheda tomorrow.
Wexford are on par with Louth, except for their lower scoring differential, and have a tougher last fence against Laois, who still have an outside chance of promotion. The danger for Wexford is that Laois outpace them in Wexford Park, Louth beat Longford and Armagh beat Galway. In that event, Wexford would be relegated.
Longford, the only team in any division without a point, are already resigned to a return to life in Division 3 next year after one season in higher company, but no points from six games is not a fair reflection of their form. Five of their defeats were by one to three-point margins, suggesting that a bit of luck could well have turned their campaign around.
Armagh have been the division's biggest flops. Relegated from Division 1 last year, they are now perilously close to dropping to Division 3 after starting the campaign as third favourite to take the title. Defeat by Galway tomorrow would complete the two-division drop in 12 months, scarcely the graph expected.
Title: Derry 4/7, Westmeath 5/4, Galway, Laois 33/1
Relegation: Armagh 8/13, Wexford 15/8, Louth 8/1 (Longford are already relegated)
DIVISION 3: FIVE STILL IN PROMOTION RACE
Five are still in contention for the precious one-two finish as they head for the final fence, while two from Antrim, Sligo and Wicklow will be relegated.
Wicklow's case is all but tried because survival depends on them beating Sligo by a huge margin and Antrim losing heavily to Monaghan.
Fermanagh have defied the handicapper and ran an excellent race which sees them leading at the final fence.
However, Meath are looming alongside them and if the Royals outjump them and gallop to victory in Navan tomorrow, they will take one of the promotion prizes.
Agonisingly for Fermanagh, who were promoted from Division 4 last year, they could lose the second slot too as a Monaghan win over Antrim would see them overtake Peter Canavan's brave battlers if they are beaten by Meath. However, if Fermanagh manage to draw or beat Meath, promotion is assured.
Cavan and Roscommon are still standing in the promotion race but can only strike a real blow if they win tomorrow and either Monaghan or Meath lose.
Antrim will consider themselves unlucky in running, having picked up only four points (win and two draws) while having a low (-2 points) scoring differential. It leaves them in a perilous state as relegation awaits if they lose to Monaghan and Sligo beat Wicklow. Sligo have home advantage, while Antrim will be away.
Title: Monaghan evs, Meath 13/8, Fermanagh 10/3, Cavan 40/1, Roscommon 50/1
Relegation: Antrim 8/13; Sligo 6/5 (bookies assuming that Wicklow are already doomed, although technically they could survive)
DIVISION 4: OFFALY
ONLY OUTSIDERS IN MUNSTER PARTY
It's a straight run-off (Offaly v Tipperary, Clare v Limerick) for the one-two finish. Limerick have an economic racing style (they won five of six games despite returning the low scoring average of 12.5 points per game) but, crucially, it now means that a dead-heat with Clare tomorrow will win a promotion place.
Clare, who are cursing the first-round stumble when they lost to Waterford by a point, need to win to earn promotion but have home advantage to bolster their case. Similarly with Offaly, who are level with Tipperary heading for the final fence.
It's quite an improvement by Tipperary, who were way off promotion pace in their opening two games which they lost to Carlow and Waterford. However, they have since gathered pace and power in four straight wins.
Offaly's bumpy period came in rounds two and three when they lost to Limerick and Clare but they have won three times since then.
The bottom four are completing the course with nothing to win or lose as they are well outside the promotion zone. That's particularly disappointing for Leitrim, who looked set for a forward move after winning the FBD Connacht League in January and, even more so, for Carlow and Waterford, who won their first two league games before losing the next four.
London, who have one win from six games, will be hoping for a final surge against Leitrim.
Title: Tipperary, Limerick 7/4, Clare 7/2, Offaly 4/1