Published 24/04/2010 | 05:00
allianz NFL Division 3 final
Sligo v Antrim, Croke Park, 7.0,
M Condon. *Live TG4
Sligo won the corresponding Division 4 final 12 months ago, but Antrim had the edge when the sides met earlier in the league this season.
On a form line through Kerry at a critical stage in last year's championship, they are virtually impossible to separate.
Antrim's imperious early form wobbled a little with two defeats in their last three games, but Sligo finished smartly against an already relegated Roscommon.
Sligo point to a highly experienced defence, with five of tonight's sextet starting every game. Tony Taylor has had an impressive campaign at midfield, while Mark Breheny and David Kelly continue to bring penetration to attack. Antrim football is on quite a high, fuelled by St Gall's All-Ireland success in March and now promotion again. After Down and Armagh, the Saffrons have the most impressive defensive record in the four divisions.
The experience and spin-off from St Patrick's Day may inspire Antrim that little bit more and keep up the momentum.
Last clash: Antrim 1-12 Sligo 0-14 (2010 NFL)
Odds: Antrim 1/1; Sligo 1/1; Draw 15/2.
NFL Division 4 final
Limerick v Waterford, Croke Park, 5.0,
R O'Donnell. *Live TG4
It's been 114 years since Limerick last claimed silverware at national senior level in football and while the Division 4 title may not hold their interest for very long, it will be a milestone nonetheless should they achieve it.
Even Waterford have had national success in less than half that time -- their 1957 Munster title still ranks as one of the shocks of the last century.
Waterford football has made steady improvement in recent years under John Kiely and now John Owens has been able to cash in on the groundwork laid by 'Jackson'.
They are a vastly under-rated side who are the only unbeaten team in this league. In Maurice and Tomas O'Gorman and Shane Briggs they have quality defenders, while Liam O Lionain provides a significant threat inside. Gary Hurney's decision to defect from the hurlers has been to their benefit.
They defeated Limerick in a group game, but Limerick have come back strongly, their victory over Clare a telling result.
The Shannonsiders probably should not have found themselves in Division 4, given how well they performed in Munster last year. John Galvin and Ian Ryan can a provide a step up in class sufficient to break that 114-year hoodoo and at last give these players some silverware.
Last Clash: Waterford 1-12 Limerick 1-11 (2010 NFL)
Odds: Limerick 1 /2; Waterford 2/1; Draw 15/2.
NFL Division 1 final
Cork v Mayo, Croke Park, 4.0,
P Hughes (Armagh). *Live TG4
Both sides have painful memories of their last visits to Croke Park, in the 2009 championship, but with so many changes on the teams, that won't count for a whole lot in terms of deciding the outcome.
Only 15 -- seven Cork, eight Mayo -- from the teams that lost to Kerry and Meath respectively last season will start tomorrow as rival managers Conor Counihan and John O'Mahony find replacements for injured players and, even more significantly, test new talent in the closest environment they can get to the championship experience.
Mayo teams have a poor record in major finals, which loads the pressure on tomorrow, but Cork's need is probably even greater. Defeats by Kerry in the 2007 and 2009 All-Ireland finals, not to mention several semi-final setbacks, makes it very important for Cork not to lose another big game in Croke Park.
As a member of the 1989 team that won the league, Counihan will be well aware how that success, achieved with a victory over Dublin in the final, changed Cork's fortunes after losing the two previous All-Ireland finals to Meath -- the Rebels went on to win the next two All-Irelands.
Cork started this league as favourites to take the title whereas Mayo were priced for relegation. Cork lived up to their rating, having clinched a place in the final before the last game. It was all very impressive, especially their highly prolific attack, but Counihan will be worried by the high concession rate against Monaghan, Galway, Tyrone and, indeed, Mayo, who hit them for 0-16 in the final game.
O'Mahony's men can be very pleased with a campaign which saw them win six of seven games, losing only to Dublin on a day when they kicked 18 wides and still came up just a point short.
Tomorrow is a winner-takes-all contest for the first major prize of the year between two new-look teams, with Cork fancied to win the title and Mayo primed to play well enough to take a lot of confidence and energy into the Connacht championship.
Last clash: Mayo 0-16 Cork 0-11 (2010 NFL).
Odds: Cork 1 /2; Mayo 2/1; Draw 15/2.
Cork -- P O'Shea; R Carey, M Shields, E Cotter; N O'Leary, P Kissane, J O'Sullivan; A O'Connor, A Walsh; F Goold, D O'Connor, P Kelly; D Goulding, C Sheehan, P Kerrigan.
Mayo -- D Clarke; C Barrett, G Cafferkey, L O'Malley; D Vaughan, T Howley, K McLoughlin; T Parsons, S O'Shea; A Moran, A Dillon, T Mortimer; C Mortimer, A O'Shea, M Ronaldson.
NFL Division 2 final
Down v Armagh, Croke Park, 2.0,
Gearoid O Conamha. *Live TG4
The two defences in the national league that exercised most parsimony meet in a Division 2 decider that has plenty of sub-plots.
Paddy O'Rourke, Down's All-Ireland-winning captain in 1991, takes charge of his county's most bitter rivals. Not that it matters much, O'Rourke gave four years to Down as manager before being moved on in 2006.
Three years on James McCartan has come in and built a team in impressively quick time. Central to the reconstruction has been tightening the defence by imposing a system that has the hallmarks of Tyrone and Armagh in the earlier part of the last decade. They conceded just three goals in seven league matches as a consequence on their way to six wins and one draw.
Their victory in Newry over Armagh by 1-13 to 1-6 was one of the most impressive of the six wins, but Armagh can still take solace from aspects of that game, particularly in the first half, when they looked a better team.
O'Rourke, too, is rebuilding, with Ronan Clarke, restored to full-forward after injury, and Steven McDonnell the only remnants of the 2002 team. Their last-round rout of Donegal in Letterkenny suggests the work is at an advanced stage. Croke Park will be to Armagh's liking but they have to show a capacity for more expansive football too. That's the challenge for them.
Down have not won a senior match in Croke Park since the 1994 All-Ireland final, though admittedly their visits there since then have been few and far between. And they have plenty of under-age experience of headquarters, which will help.
Martin Clarke's return from Australia has triggered a rising tide that has lifted all boats in Down. His brother John, who ended a two-year exile, has been one of those to benefit most. The renewal of Martin Clarke's head-to-head with Armagh's robust centre-back Ciaran McKeever will be a feature.
Revenge can be a real motivating factor for Armagh, so too can the venue. But the Mourne men have had a settled look, they are defending smartly and have one or two more match-winners in attack.
Last clash: Down 1-13 Armagh 1-6 (2010 NFL).
Odds: Down 10/11; Armagh 11/10; Draw 15/2.
martin breheny and colm keys