Moving day: Business end of the season begins
Counties eager to make their mark as the business end of the season begins, writes Martin Breheny
IT starts this weekend. Clocks have gone forward, more evening daylight makes for better quality training, while all around the country there's a feeling that April 1 officially launches the business part of the GAA season.
Apart from the Connacht football preliminary tie between Roscommon and New York on May 1, the start of the provincial championships is six weeks away. Quite a lot can happen between now and then to shape the 2011 destiny of many counties.
There are two rounds to be completed in both the Allianz Football and Hurling leagues and, while the action over the past two months has erected the basic structures, they are still in a building site which is some way from being completed.
Indeed, between now and the hurling league final day on May 1, some real gems of significant information will emerge, so that, by the time counties head into the championship, the estate could look a whole lot different.
Some houses which appear to be almost completed will remain unfinished; others which are half-built now will undergo a dramatic change once more craftsmen are drafted in.
A few that are only a few blocks high, will turn out to have put down very strong foundations which could prove significant later on.
How counties finish out the league is important. It's not always necessary to win titles in the various divisions -- although it can help -- but counties feel a whole lot better about themselves if their campaign gathers momentum on the home stretch than if they do well early on, only to fade towards the finish.
As for those who reach the finals, defeat doesn't inflict serious damage unless, as happened Mayo last year, it's accompanied by a heavy punch. Mayo reached the Division 1 final, but took such a heavy hit from Cork, that they didn't recover all summer.
There was no natural logic in how Mayo won six of seven games in Division 1, only to lose to Sligo, who had been in Division 3 and Longford (Division 4) in the championship. Did the knock-out by Cork leave them so concussed that they couldn't re-assemble their senses in time for the championship? It's the only theory which stands up to any scrutiny.
The essential requirement for every team in the league is to ensure that it leaves them as well prepared as they can for the championship. At the very least, it shouldn't undermine them in any way.
That's why the final two rounds are so important in setting the tone for later on.
For example, if Dublin footballers were to lose to Down and Galway over the next eight days and lose out on a final place, how would it equate with their five wins up to then? Which would they regard as the more accurate barometer going into the championship?
It's highly likely that Dublin will qualify for the final for the first time since 1999, but the risks of losing out are there, making tonight's game against Down especially important as they will close out the deal ahead of the final round if they win.
At the other end of the table, Galway have had a dismal run, losing all five games so far, but if they were to win their last two (v Armagh, Dublin) and somehow escape relegation, it would be almost as good as winning the title, especially since they are likely to have a much stronger hand in the championship.
Alternatively, stronger hand or not, they will be in a very gloomy world heading into the championship if they fail to win any game in Division 1.
It will be equally bleak for neighbours, Mayo if they lose their last two games against Cork and Monaghan, as it would leave them headed for Division 2. That would be quite a hit for Connacht, leaving them without representation in Division 1 next season.
Tyrone and Derry both lost two of their final three League games last year, sentencing them to relegation after a decade in which they had done exceptionally well in Division 1. Derry's dip continued into the championship where they gave poor performances against Armagh and Kildare.
Tyrone won the Ulster title which was taken as an indication that relegation was no more than a blip. It wasn't.
Standards in Ulster have dropped quite a few notches from where they were when Tyrone and Armagh were slugging it out like heavyweights.
Tyrone won Ulster last year without having to be anywhere near as potent as they used to be and were later seen off quite comfortably by Dublin.
Down's advance to the All-Ireland final raised Ulster spirits, but James McCartan's boys were helped by a combination of circumstances, not least favourable qualifier draws, which don't come around every year.
To their credit, they exploited the opportunities, but then they were a team on the up in what was a modest year in terms of overall standard.
Down are now comfortable in Division 1 -- indeed, they will reach the final if they beat Dublin and Kerry -- but Tyrone are in different territory.
They urgently need a big finish to their Division 2 campaign to have a chance of returning to Division 1 at the first attempt. Fail there and further questions will arise as to where exactly they are right now.
The same applies to Kildare. They have, via the qualifiers, extended their championship campaigns to the All-Ireland quarter and semi-final stage in each of the last three seasons which suggests their natural environment is Division 1.
However, they lost their final two games in Division 2 last year which left them nearer bottom than top.
Their fate is in their own hands this year, but they would probably need to beat Tyrone and Sligo to be promoted.
It's another example of how important the post-April 1 games are in terms of setting the agenda heading into the championship.
Donegal are unbeaten in Division 2, but that only becomes relevant if they build on it and win promotion.
Lose the last two games to Antrim and Laois, miss promotion and, suddenly, the league campaign looks a whole lot less tasty as a championship appetiser.
Admittedly, it's unlikely Donegal will lose at home to Antrim tomorrow and, if other results go their way, they could actually be promoted ahead of the last round clash with Laois.
Still, there's always the risk that April could deliver a cold snap in the middle of the warm glow.
Because of the greater variation in standards, the league tends to be more important in football than hurling.
However, the close-out is important in hurling too, certainly for Dublin, Wexford, Offaly, Clare and Limerick.
Dublin took seven out of eight points in their first four games which over-achieved on the first ambition of securing Division 1 status and raised hopes of reaching the final for the first time in 65 years. Indeed, it's still attainable although they would probably need to beat Kilkenny and Cork to secure it.
However, last Sunday's defeat by Galway nudged them into a new pressure zone.
What if they ended up losing their last three games? In previous years, a mid-table finish would be regarded as satisfactory, but not anymore. And, if a team is to finish on seven points, it's better to accumulate most of them in the later stages, so that they leave the league on a high.
Wexford's stock is dismally low at present, but if they were to win one of their last two games, it would lift some of the gloom ahead of the championship.
Limerick and Clare were always destined to meet in the Division 2 final but, for both, all that matters is winning that precious promotion prize.
The winners will head into the championship feeling they are on a progressive upward curve, while the losers can't have much optimism for the summer.
Nor will they fancy the prospect of another season in Division 2.
Truly, the GAA season starts here.