Monday 25 March 2019

Colm O'Rourke: Matches like today are won just as much on pig iron as flair and Mayo are more battle hardened

Mayo’s Aidan O’Shea in pursuit of Galway’s Shane Walsh during their Allianz League clash in February. Photo: Sportsfile
Mayo’s Aidan O’Shea in pursuit of Galway’s Shane Walsh during their Allianz League clash in February. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

Mayo and Galway meet today in what I can best describe as a proper championship match that could decorate Croke Park in August in a quarter or semi-final. Two teams who have ambitions - the first is to win today but the real bonus is to make the Super 8. Then the real fun begins.

Neither will countenance defeat today, but life on the road would be more difficult for Mayo while it might not do Galway any harm at all. They are younger, have more to learn, and a few hard games may not hinder them in the long run. The danger is that they could run into another heavyweight team early on in the qualifiers, and history is littered with teams of potential who never fulfilled it. The bars are full of players who never lived up to expectations, they are the boxers who look back in anger and declare: "I could have been a contender." That group are best ignored.

Mayo did not do badly on tour last year and actually picked up momentum on the way. The wins over Clare, Cork and eventually Roscommon made them. All players prefer games to training and we will see today whether Mayo have the balance right by doing very little in terms of heavy fitness work. Fresh legs are the key to victory for Mayo today and it is better to take a chance on doing less rather than leaving their form on the training ground.

Galway are outsiders in a game where all recent form points their way. They beat Mayo in the championship last year and again in the league this spring. That match in early February saw a change, too, in the mood of these old opponents. It was a sour affair while traditionally Galway-Mayo games did not have a sharp or bitter edge. That disappeared in Salthill on February 11 and today's game will be hot and heavy.

Ultimately, of course, a player shows his bravery and commitment to his team by honest endeavour, winning breaking ball and trying his hardest, rather than snarling and posturing. If someone gets put off for that today then they can be categorised in the 'complete dope' column.

Galway might have been better off in the league if they did not get to the final, a game in which they did not go after Dublin ­- even when they had an extra man. Of course it could prove to have been a very good learning experience, but they did seem very rigid in their formation.

I called their method of play ugly early in the year as it seemed to put an onus on their best forwards like Damien Comer and Shane Walsh to defend far too often. The robotic nature of this play is blamed on Paddy Tally, but I have a certain sympathy as Galway leaked goals over the last few years. That problem has been largely solved, but at the expense of attack and I did compare Galway forwards of the great team like Pádraic Joyce, Michael Donnellan and Jarlath Fallon and wondered would this group be allowed to flourish.

Of course that great team also had men like Tomás Mannion and John Divilly as wonderful defenders who were happy to do it, while Seán Óg De Paor could attack and defend. The present company, when left to their own devices, would collapse against good forwards - hence the need for reinforcements.

The downside to that is if you keep bailing out defenders by throwing in extra backs then they never learn their job - tight marking, getting a hand in, good positioning and so on. There is no need to learn when you don't have to worry as there is always someone else to cover for you. It only teaches bad habits and a lot of backs now are just Flash Harrys who solo up the field and kick the odd point. They need to be driven back on their arse with a good wallop and sent back to do their primary job.

Anyway, the Titanic could sail through the Galway backs over the last few years, so it is a case of needs must for Kevin Walsh and his management team.

Walsh has taken a swipe at the critics of his team's style recently. His comment about "lazy pundits" was straight out of the GPA lexicon used against me in the past. I presume it does not mean we pundits lie in bed in the morning, more likely what he means is we do not understand. Walsh is entitled to have a go at the fourth estate, we can't be like Murphy's dog - able to give it but not able to take it.

Mayo are in decline and the wallpaper cannot cover all the cracks. There are a few changes today from the All-Ireland final but they are changes, not improvements, unless Conor Loftus produces something new. Stephen Coen is a help in the backs, but the willing horses will still carry most of the load and in fairness, none of these Mayo players have ever shirked a battle. It certainly won't happen today in front of their own crowd.

The Mayo team which was announced is unlikely to start unless they have decided to commit ritual hara-kiri. I would nearly sprint half-naked up MacHale Park if this team starts. I said 'nearly'. This full-back line would treat a high ball like an unidentified flying object and Comer would make early hay. If Chris Barrett is alive and well then he must start. Stephen Rochford has got a lot of decisions right for Mayo in his time, he has also had a few howlers and he has to get it spot on today. Nobody will remember the line-up if they win, but poor decisions by the goalkeeper and backs have cost Mayo All-Irelands. They cannot afford any more on this team's watch.

If Cillian O'Connor pulled his hamstring as badly as it seemed a short while ago, then he might be playing but he won't be fit. He may be needed for the frees and there are likely to be plenty of those on both sides. So the weight falls back on the O'Shea brothers, Tom Parsons, Paddy Durcan, Colm Boyle and Andy Moran. If they lead well, others will follow.

On the Galway side, there is a bigger question of leadership. Comer will provide it (even if he would have been better off keeping a lower profile for the last two weeks) but it is a day for Shane Walsh to produce, so too Gareth Bradshaw, Gary O'Donnell and Tom Flynn. Galway certainly need to discover a few new ones in the heat of Castlebar today.

Most matches of this type are won just as much on pig iron as flair and Mayo seem to have a distinct advantage in the middle eight players. Apart from Coen, they are a hardened, physical bunch. They surely will push up hard on the Galway kick-out, which could be a big weakness for them. Not just the kick itself, but the fight for possession which takes place after the ball drops. And it will be a fight where only the brave and reckless have any chance. Mayo should do well on breaks.

If Galway win, they can look to better days ahead and will grow into the summer. Mayo are a team of today, not tomorrow or next week. That can look after itself. This is a game for a hometown hero. Can Aidan O'Shea carry that mantle or will he allow it to be carried out of town?

I expect a great battle but not a great game. The present and future collide. I will go for the old dog for the hard road and think, that at home, the intense pride of Mayo will see them rouse themselves for an almighty effort. Mayo to win but Galway are not going away.

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