Saturday 25 January 2020

Colm O'Rourke: All eyes on battle of Omagh as Super 8 gets ready to catch fire

Dublin's Stephen Cluxton. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Dublin's Stephen Cluxton. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

There was never any danger of Dublin losing last night - and a five-point margin flattered Donegal. There was more atmosphere in a morgue than there was in Croke Park for the last quarter.

In the end, the Donegal supporters took to booing Dublin as they kept possession - that's some transformation from that famous semi-final a few years ago! The shoe is on the other foot now and the Dubs basically shut up shop for the last ten minutes and played time out on their own terms. They knew they had the match won and were taking no chances.

If the system was fair, Donegal should have had their first game at home as provincial champions against one of the qualifiers. It is just one of many flaws in this Super 8. The most obvious other one is that these two matches in Croke Park gave the feeling of League football, and the absence of death or glory was reflected in the complete lack of intensity. Even the Hill seemed flatter than usual. No matter what happens now Dublin will be in the All-Ireland semi-final so maybe they are keeping their best singing voices for later.

The opening half was mostly a timid affair. Referee Conor Lane seemed to be taking no chances and everything was a free, including Michael Darragh Macauley shunting a defender out of his way. It used to be a shoulder but in football now it is looked on as unlawful bodily contact. In hurling it would look mild.

The Dubs looked in cruise control for most of the half, even if they were conservative, and not getting many players in front of the ball. Unusually for them there was a lot of passing back. They must have thought they were playing against old Donegal as the full battalions lined up like the Jim McGuinness era. The Ulster champions forced Dublin back but often then were short of numbers in attack.

Yet they created a couple of very good goal chances in a most unlike Donegal way: they kicked the ball in high and it caused anxiety around the square. Without Philly McMahon there was a weakness in the Dublin defence under the dropping ball and others will copy that tactic now. Stephen Cluxton does not like a 16-stone full-forward bearing down on him.

A big difference emerged on kick-outs. Cluxton got nearly all his away easily while Shaun Patton was put under enormous pressure by the Dublin front six who spread across the field and tempted him to kick short. It nearly cost Donegal dearly on a couple of occasions.

When the goal did arrive it was from Niall Scully, who hugged the right touchline for most of the half and came on to the ball with late runs. He took plenty of steps with the first goal and he ghosted in late again to finish at the start of the second half. Patton's kick-out should have coughed up another goal in the 50th minute but Con O'Callaghan went for a point when he should have passed to Scully for his hat-trick. It summed up the night for the young star: a lot of effort for little reward. It was a bit like that for Ciaran Kilkenny too.

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Cormac Costello, Kevin McManamon and Paul Flynn made impacts as subs but the Dubs better hope nothing happens to Brian Fenton. He throws the petrol on the fire when it is needed - and it will take a much better overall performance to beat Tyrone.

For all that, Donegal can take some hope for the games ahead and they never gave up, but there is still a great divide between them and the top three or four. There is every chance of bridging it in time. Paddy McBrearty is a serious loss.

A strange aspect of the first half of the opening game was that Roscommon had plenty of the ball but Tyrone still always looked in control.

And as the half wore on, the normal pattern of Tyrone football was evident - they turned over the ball easily, attacked at pace and their kicking was very accurate. Tyrone scored the last six points of the half as the early promise of Roscommon faded and they gave away the ball with sloppy handpassing or carried the ball into contact, a real no-no when playing Mickey Harte's team. On top of that, Roscommon gave away a dreadful goal when a sloppy cross field kick from Enda Smith was cut out and Niall Sludden tucked the chance away with the minimum of fuss.

The Tyrone octopus had easily got to grips with a fairly anaemic Roscommon challenge until Enda Smith put a bit of life back into the game with a brilliant goal. A couple of points followed and there was a match again, something which looked very unlikely at half-time. Yet Roscommon were living dangerously and trusted their backs to go man to man. They had little option, but the inside men of Tyrone had the measure of their markers and the alarm bells rang constantly.

Conor Meyler scored a second-half goal and was promptly taken off, a case of thanks very much but one goal in an otherwise quiet performance does not save you.

The big difference between the teams was that Tyrone players took the ball at pace when facing the opposition goal; they broke through easily as the sheer physical strength opened gaps. Roscommon on the other hand often got the ball with their backs to goal and there were not enough runners coming at pace off the shoulder.

The last quarter served two purposes: firstly, it was target practice for Tyrone and a good score difference may come into play; secondly, they were able to rest players for the battle of Omagh against Dublin, and a battle it will be - everyone can hang on to their washing for that one.

There was feeling here that Roscommon's season is over with two games to go. They are back in the top division in the League and it can be called a successful year in getting to the Super 8, but even within the top eight there is a huge gulf.

Tyrone are in rude good health and have a great mixture of scorers; they also have pace and power and the Super 8 for them is only the beginning.

The Super 8 has started with a bare whimper. Two easy winners in two poor games. The last round might even be worse. The clear divide cannot be dressed up in this format but next weekend will see a battle to the death. That might gloss over some of the cracks but at the very least, we saw two serious contenders in Dublin and Tyrone.

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