Ciarán Whelan: 'The risks in going gung-ho in Omagh dead rubber are too perilous'
DUBLIN and Tyrone booked their All-Ireland semi-final tickets with victories in Croke Park last weekend in contrasting games. In nine days’ time these two great modern rivals meet in Healy Park, Omagh to decide who tops their group.
No matter what way I look at the game I come to the same conclusion. Call it what you want - a dead rubber, a dead duck.
We can’t get away from the context and timing of the game.
The context is ... both counties are into the last four in the race for Sam in a game six or seven days out from an All-Ireland semi-final, the biggest day of the year at that stage for both Jim Gavin and Mickey Harte’s men.
Playing week-on-week is a psychological pressure on players.
Trying to deliver two big, big performances one week apart can be a big struggle and really it’s a fault in the schedule that needs to be addressed.
People might argue that the psychological effect of a loss would be detrimental to their chances in a semi-final, but what would be far more damaging is injury, suspension or fatigue.
So, for me anyway, what happens in Healy Park is largely irrelevant.
Both camps have lots of psychologically strong characters in their dressing room and I don’t think either side will let a defeat in a phoney war unseat them in the drive to reach Croke Park on All-Ireland final Sunday.
While it’s not exactly the same as last year when Dublin, having defeated Donegal and Tyrone, rested a significant number of players for their concluding group game against Roscommon, I still expect Gavin to field a largely altered side from last Saturday night.
While there is a possibility that Dublin and Tyrone could meet again this year, as they did in last year’s All-Ireland decider, I think the risks in going all gung-ho in Omagh are too perilous.
Last year for the Roscommon Super 8s clash, only Stephen Cluxton, Philly McMahon, John Small, Cian O’Sullivan (playing at midfield) and Jack McCaffrey started against both the Rossies and again in the next game, their All-Ireland semi-final against Galway, and I think Jim will employ a similar approach to this game.
For that Roscommon game he rested the likes of Eoin Murchan, Jonny Cooper, Brian Fenton, James McCarthy, Niall Scully, Ciarán Kilkenny, Brian Howard, Dean Rock, Con O’Callaghan and Paul Mannion.
With James McCarthy and particularly Jonny Cooper, after a much longer time out due to injury, only returning to action last week, Dublin may elect to start both against Tyrone with Cooper especially needing game-time.
Brian Fenton, who came in for some very physical attention when Dublin lost to Tyrone in this year’s league, may be kept in reserve and likewise O’Callaghan and Mannion among others.
One problem Gavin does have is that the same wealth of talent and options do not exist in the Dublin defence as its attack. Therefore, Dublin’s rearguard is likely to have a more familiar look than in midfield or up front.
Mickey Harte, in all likelihood, will adopt a similar approach.
He will have his eyes on the lead-in to an All-Ireland semi-final and knows that in this instance against the Dubs, a more common sense approach is best.
Personally, I think it could turn into a bit of a farce of a game and I’m not sure the paying public and travelling fans will get their money’s worth.
That said, I’m still very positive about the Super 8s going forward and am anticipating two superb All-Ireland semi-finals.
At this moment, if I found a stray euro down the back of the couch, I’d tell the Missus and kids nothing, and bet on last-four pairings of Dublin versus Donegal and Kerry versus Tyrone!
The concept is right and I think with a bit of a tweak it could be even better, maybe two groups of five with the winner of each group advancing to a semi-final and the second and third-placed counties progressing to quarter-finals.
Obviously the finer detail on that needs working out and will, as ever, impact on the overall calendar and the club game.
That’s something I have discussed on these pages in the past and will revisit again.
At this moment I’d rank Dublin as the favourites to lift the Sam Maguire with Tyrone as the outsiders of the four and, as seen in last Sunday’s brilliant Kerry v Donegal game, there is little or nothing between these two.
Obviously both teams were missing key men who would have an influence if they meet again, but I’d probably place Donegal marginally, very marginally ahead of the Kingdom.
I think they have more experience throughout their squad and arguably one or two more leaders who can help to guide them through troubled waters at clutch moments in big games.
However, Kerry are a very dangerous weapon being loaded at the moment.
Last weekend’s game will have brought on their younger crew as the team’s more recent visits to Croke Park had not been what Kerry expect once they land in headquarters.
With regards to the Dubs, they were ruthless in the opening half, really upping the tempo in their game to that of the previous games.
It was obvious they set out to end the game as a contest at the earliest possible juncture and then rest some of their front-line players.
But yet again it was an encounter where Dublin were never pushed near the ‘red zone’ and there are questions that will only be answered when that happens, as it will before the summer is out.
PS: I’d like to add my own congratulations to those of so many others following Shane Lowry’s brilliant success last weekend in Portrush.
Shane is a first cousin of former Dublin and Raheny team mate Dave Henry.
During the mid-2000s or so Shane often joined the panel for a little celebration after Leinster Championship successes and was extremely popular with all the crew.
There were a few memorable times in The Strawberry Hall ... ‘where the Strawberry Beds sweep down to the Liffey’. We enjoyed a few pints and a bit of craic - Shane always bought his own round and gave free golf lessons in the car park!
Shane passed on his golfing expertise and we taught him how to sing out of turn and out of tune.