Whatever its intended merits, the Tailteann Cup has also highlighted in bright fluorescent yellow marker the enduring struggles of Leinster football.
Year two of providing a window through which to view the province’s stasis may yet be more transparent than the first.
In the old days (pre-2021, to be specific), the league was packed off into storage by April. Dublin laid waste to Leinster and everyone got too distracted by the All-Ireland run-in to notice how few, or any, other teams from the province were still around by mid-summer.
Now, finally, we have correlation between league and championship. The clocks haven’t gone back yet, but everywhere you look, there is jeopardy. You can feel it in the grounds around Division 2. You can hear it in the stressed post-match words of struggling managers.
In football anyway, the sell-by date on the phrase ‘it’s only the league’ has expired. The split between the haves and the have-nots is explicit now. There is a line. Every team will fall one side or the other of it.
After four rounds of the league it seems a decent time to gauge where they all might end up. For Leinster counties, the portents are not good.
There are many, many twists, turns and permutations to factor in before the final standings are carved into tablet and sent down the mountain.
But it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that just four of the Leinster counties will compete for the All-Ireland SFC this year.
For context, three is the minimum representation the province can have.
Provincial finalists are guaranteed a place – so that’s two. As are the reigning Tailteann Cup champions, Westmeath, who are currently paddling along at a steady pace in the top half of Division 3.
The rest of the Leinster counties who miss the cut would make up almost half the entire starting grid for the Tailteann Cup.
Quick side question here: is that such a bad thing? Where once the Tailteann Cup was much maligned, now it is somewhat less maligned.
There are counties and managers who have already put winning, or at least prospering in, the Tailteann Cup as one of their stated seasonal goals.
But for football in Leinster, ahead of what is universally predicted to be Dublin’s 13th provincial title in a row, the crush on the wrong side of that line continues to be a problem.
To this point, there is no credible alternative. No sure signs of a team about to make the great leap forward.
A quick run-down.
Even after a surprise loss to Wicklow in Aughrim last weekend, Laois look the best bet of the Leinster teams in Division 4 to be promoted, with Waterford to come this weekend and London still to play. Regardless, they would require an unlikely spin to this year’s Leinster final to stay out of the Tailteann Cup.
In Division 3, Longford (eighth) and Offaly (fifth) don’t quite look promotion material; even if they were, the chances of that granting them a place in the All-Ireland series via league placing are remote anyway.
Division 2 is where it gets complicated. And angsty. Three of the bottom five teams therein are from Leinster: Meath, Louth and Kildare.
There is much jockeying for position going on now and plenty of matches still to play. But Dublin and Derry seem destined for the top-two placings and Limerick are tracking back towards Division 3.
The number of seats at the table assigned through finishing position in Division 2 then depends on which counties make the various provincial finals.
If, for instance, Clare finished seventh in Division 2 but made a Munster final, there would be ramifications for the county above them in league placing. Or were one of the high-flying Ulster teams in Division 3 – Down, Fermanagh or Cavan – to make a provincial decider, there will be a knock-on effect for one of the finishers in that precarious place in Division 2.
Kildare, who have put in two awful home performances in a row now to Cork and Derry, seem to be in the most bother.
“The next game is our huge game,” Glenn Ryan asserted after the 2-15 to 0-7 reverse to Derry in Newbridge last Sunday. “No point saying there’s three huge games, just focusing on what’s in front of us (next).”
True. But unlike Meath, Kildare have been pitched on the same half of the Leinster draw as Dublin. So while not yet fully clear, their task is taking shape: improve quickly and make ground sharply over the last three rounds of the league or beat Dublin in the championship for the first time in 23 years.
Meath, Louth and Westmeath are all on the far side, and each will have genuine aspirations of making the Leinster final. The difference is that unlike Westmeath, one of Meath and Louth may yet require it for a ticket to the big dance.
“Well, there are still three games and three wins to be got, so we are not giving up on anything at this stage,” insisted Colm O’Rourke on Sunday after Meath’s three-point loss to Louth at Páirc Tailteann.
“Is it enough to stay up here?” Mickey Harte wondered aloud after that result. “At least it gives you a fighting chance, and at this stage, we’re happy that we’re in the mix not just to be relegation favourites but possibly able to survive in this division.”
Will that even be enough? It’s complicated. But everyone knew the terms and conditions beforehand, even if they had to squint to read the small print.