Colm Keys: 'Has there ever been as much interest about numbers 17 to 26 at this stage of the race for Sam?'
Decisive role of impact subs means team that ends match just as important as starting 15
What does it say about a team or the state of the affairs of a game when, in the week of an All-Ireland football semi-final, there is much more speculation and consideration about who makes a bench than who starts?
Has there ever been as much interest about numbers 17 to 26 at this stage of the competition?
Instantly, it underlines the growing importance of the replacement role in an 80-minute-plus game. Or should that be ‘finishers’ role as English rugby coach Eddie Jones took to referring to it as a couple of seasons back.
It also reflects the settled state of Dublin’s first 15 ahead of their renewal with Mayo. Apart from a couple of moving pieces in defence, the team appears to be more straightforward in its selection than at any stage in Jim Gavin’s seven-year reign. Cormac Costello’s failure to sustain early-season form has seen him revert to an impact role.
The near certainty of who starts for Dublin this summer points to a chasm between the team and the bench that hasn’t always been as obvious.
In that context, the decision over Diarmuid Connolly has greater relevance.
In Omagh on Sunday, Connolly put in a breathless 70 minutes, surely road-testing successfully for some small role this weekend.
But what about Bernard Brogan? After so much exertion over the last 18 months, and more relevantly the last seven months, to get back in the frame, it must have been quite a jolt for himself and Eoghan O’Gara to see Connolly, just three weeks back training having originally planned to go to Boston for the summer, to make a starting team ahead of them.
Even at the very highest level, these things matter.
And while O’Gara scored a goal, Brogan’s all-round energy and industry was very evident.
Enough to make a 26-man squad, now that Connolly is back in the mix? Ahead of competing forwards Costello, Kevin McManamon, Paddy Andrews or Paddy Small, who has jumped a few places this summer? To accommodate them all, Gavin may have to opt for a bench top-heavy with forwards.
All four managers will have clear plans about who to introduce and when to do it this weekend.
With Jason Doherty a confirmed non-starter, Andy Moran’s prospects of regaining a starting place increase.
His season has ebbed and flowed but the Ballaghdereen man is the epitome of Mayo resilience itself and has become their most potent impact asset over the three weekends of the Super 8s series.
He looked to have run out of road when he was replaced before half-time on the night that Armagh visited MacHale Park for a third-round qualifier. For a player of his stature, even in his 36th year, that was tough to take.
He didn’t feature in Limerick when Galway were put to the sword, further embellishing a growing belief that Mayo may be moving on without him.
But with the ship listing in Killarney for the first quarter-final, Moran provided a steady hand with two second-half points off the bench and then showed all his craft against Meath when he replaced Darren Coen at the break. He landed a point, set up two more and won a free for Cillian O’Connor to convert on top of his role in securing an opposition kick-out to engineer their first and ultimately the game-breaking goal from Kevin McLoughlin.
Against Donegal, he was into the fray even quicker but his influence was no less diminished with sharp movement, good reading of breaks and two points to take any remaining sting from Donegal near the end.
The game in Navan on Saturday night last hadn’t yet taken its course when Kerry sprung Tommy Walsh for what was only his second championship run-out.
A replacement for the injured James O’Donoghue against Clare in early June, Walsh spent the next three games over two months in isolation as Peter Keane sought a different kind of impact than what Walsh offers.
With O’Donoghue remaining on the injured list, Walsh made little progression until his appearance against Meath as others, notably Killian Spillane, pushed ahead of him.
The portents for a big summer push from Walsh, who returned to the squad at Keane’s invitation last autumn, were good during the league but, when he struggled against Mayo in the league final, he seemed to take a back seat.
There were reminders on Saturday night though about what a difficult opponent he can be for defenders if the ball is right for him.
As he showed throughout the league, particularly against Monaghan, with the number of ‘marks’ he took, there are few players who can secure possession ahead of him.
Walsh may not be suited to today’s game as much as he was a decade ago but, in the right circumstances, he’s still a man who can make a vital difference.
Tyrone’s Connor McAliskey has been reduced to just one start against Dublin in Omagh last Sunday as he loses out from Cathal McShane’s conversion to full-forward.
McAliskey was Tyrone’s top scorer in last year’s championship with 2-41 and showed glimpses of that in Omagh against Rory O’Carroll without ever really driving it home on the scoreboard. Kyle Coney’s return to inter-county football has offset the loss of Ronan O’Neill and Lee Brennan from the squad but McAliskey is the man most likely to tip any scales in Tyrone’s favour.