Provincial draws still play major role in destination of Liam and Sam
THE provincial championship draws no longer dictate the All-Ireland series in the stark manner which applied before the introduction of the qualifiers in 2001, but they still have a role in defining various outlines which can be quite significant.
That's certainly the case for 2011, especially in football. It's highly likely that Cork and Kerry will reach the Munster final, which rules them out of the first three rounds of the qualifiers and presents the winners with a place in the All-Ireland quarter-finals, while the losers will be in the last-12.
Conversely, one of Connacht's so-called 'Big Two' will be in Round 2 of the qualifiers after Galway and Mayo were paired in the semi-final.
Some of Leinster's and Ulster big fish will enter the qualifiers in Round 1.
Recent history shows that a team have a better chance of reviving their All-Ireland ambitions if they lose in the early rounds, rather than in a provincial final.
With fewer contenders for the hurling title and with only two provinces involved, the results pattern tends to be less volatile, although this year was something of an exception in that Cork beat Tipperary by 10 points in the Munster quarter-final only to lose the provincial final and then watch Liam Sheedy's men regroup and embark on a successful All-Ireland run via the qualifiers.
Dublin, Meath, Kildare and Laois, who between them have won 12 of the last 13 provincial titles, are all on the same side of the draw, which will leave Westmeath (who won the remaining one in 2004), Offaly, Wexford and Louth all fancying themselves to at least reach the final. Carlow are also in this group, but are unlikely to survive for long.
Wicklow and Longford are unlucky to find themselves in the tougher half of the draw, while Louth deserve to be on the easier side after the misery of last July.
Luckiest -- Wexford/Offaly/Westmeath /Louth: They will be delighted to be on the easier side of the draw.
Unluckiest -- Wicklow: They would have to beat Kildare, Meath and Dublin/Laois/ Longford to reach the final.
Best long odds value -- Laois 14/1 (they're better than they looked over recent seasons).
Betting -- Dublin 6/5; Meath 4/1; Kildare 11/2; Louth 9/1; Westmeath 12/1; Laois 14/1; Wexford 14/1; Offaly 20/1; Wicklow 50/1; Carlow, Longford 80/1.
Down may have reached this year's All-Ireland final, but the markets still regard Tyrone as Ulster's prize asset. Tyrone are helped by the draw, for while it pits them against Monaghan in the quarter-finals, they will be pleased to be on the opposite side to Down, Armagh and Derry.
There will a huge focus on Down to ascertain if this year's progress is long-lasting or a one-season wonder. A quarter-final clash with Armagh will go a long way to answering that question.
Luckiest -- Tyrone: They would feel they have Monaghan's measure and that if they survive that test they're on the easier side of the draw.
Unluckiest -- Antrim: They haven't won an Ulster title since 1951 so they could have done without being drawn in the preliminary round.
Best long odds value -- Donegal 11/1 (they could be ready for a significant upswing).
Betting -- Tyrone 7/4; Monaghan 7/2; Down 9/2; Derry 6/1; Armagh 8/1; Donegal 11/1; Cavan 22/1; Fermanagh 33/1; Antrim 50/1.
The rest will be delighted that Galway and Mayo are on the same side. Standards may have evened out in Connacht but Roscommon, Sligo and Leitrim still prefer the two traditionally 'big beasts' to be on the other side of the draw which is understandable, given the dominance of Galway and Mayo over the years.
Significantly for Sligo, they will be at home to Leitrim in the first round and, if they win, will also have Roscommon (or New York) in Markievicz Park for the semi-final. Neither Galway nor Mayo have a good All-Ireland qualifier record, so their semi-final clash (provided London don't upset Mayo) will be crucial.
Luckiest -- Galway: Got a bye into the semi-finals.
Unluckiest -- London: They would have to beat Mayo and Galway to reach the final.
Best long odds value -- Roscommon 12/1 (on the same side as Sligo and Leitrim, both of whom they beat this year. If they reach the final, they're due home advantage against Galway or Mayo).
Betting -- Galway 11/8; Mayo 13/8; Sligo 10/3; Roscommon 12/1; Leitrim 50/1; New York 150/1; London 200/1.
Cork and Kerry will be delighted with the draw as they're on opposite sides, leaving them odds-on to reach the final and, by extension, take last-eight and last-12 places in the All-Ireland race.
Cork will be doubly pleased to have avoided Limerick, who have been a clear third in Munster for some time and who took the Rebels to extra-time in this year's qualifiers after running them to a point in last year's Munster final.
If, as expected, the 'Big Two' reach the final, it's advantage Kerry as it will be played in Killarney.
Luckiest -- Cork: Can reach final by beating Clare and Waterford.
Unluckiest -- Tipperary: Drew Kerry for a second successive year.
Best long odds value -- Limerick 12/1 (close enough to Kerry and Cork this year to keep the great dream alive).
Betting -- Cork 4/5; Kerry 6/5; Limerick 12/1; Waterford 50/1; Clare/Tipperary 100/1.
Why were Kilkenny ushered directly through to the semi-finals? Surely the format in a nine-strong group should be to play one preliminary game, followed by four quarter-finals. The provincial championships are knock-out competitions, so the system should be more equitable. Kilkenny, the most potent power for a decade, can retain the title in two games, while Carlow and Westmeath would need four.
Luckiest -- Kilkenny: The strongest squad is handed direct entry to the semi-finals.
Unluckiest -- Carlow/Westmeath: The winners play second-favourites Galway in the quarter-final.
Best long odds value -- Offaly 20/1 (they made more progress in pursuit of Kilkenny and Galway than any of the rest in Leinster this year).
Betting -- Kilkenny 4/11; Galway 5/2; Offaly 20/1; Wexford 25/1; Dublin 40/1; Antrim 150/1; Laois, Carlow 300/1; Westmeath 500/1.
Cork or Tipperary would need three victories to win the title in a competitive five-team group, whereas Kilkenny can secure a nine-team Leinster group of varying standards with two. Go figure that one out.
It's quite remarkable that Cork and Tipp are paired against each other for a fourth successive year. The arrival of Donal O'Grady, a return to full strength and direct entry to the semi-finals will see a dramatic rise in Limerick's stock value. Indeed, they will quietly fancy themselves to reach the final.
Luckiest -- Limerick/Waterford: One win and they're in the final. That also applies to Clare, except they will have to beat Tipperary or Cork.
Unluckiest -- Clare: See above.
Best long odds value -- Cork 11/2 (if they were to repeat this year's win over Tipperary in the first round they would shoot into the favourites' slot).
Betting -- Tipperary 4/5; Waterford 3/1; Cork 11/2; Clare 9/1; Limerick 10/1.