Thursday 18 October 2018

Inside the Super 8s - What impact will the system have on All-Ireland race and how big is the risk of lopsided groups?

 

11 March 2018; Jack Barry of Kerry and Brian Fenton of Dublin during the Allianz Football League Division 1 Round 5 match between Dublin and Kerry at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
11 March 2018; Jack Barry of Kerry and Brian Fenton of Dublin during the Allianz Football League Division 1 Round 5 match between Dublin and Kerry at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Now comes the new territory. By 5.30pm tomorrow, Galway or Roscommon will be first into the 'Super 8' All-Ireland football quarter-finals but still three games away from the semi-finals.

To get there, they will need to finish in the top two in a four-team round-robin that also includes the Munster champions (Cork or Kerry), Ulster runners-up (Donegal/Fermanagh) or Round 4 qualifier, and Leinster runners-up (Dublin/Laois) or Round 4 qualifier.

The other group will be comprised of the Leinster winners (Dublin/Laois), Ulster winners (Donegal/ Fermanagh), Connacht runners-up or Round 4 qualifier, and Munster runners-up or Round 4 qualifier.

The new quarter-final format impacts on the semi-final rota which, under the old system, would have been Leinster v Connacht and Munster v Ulster this year, subject of course to the provincial champions reaching the last four. If not, they would be replaced by the qualifiers that beat them.

The re-structured quarter-final format cannot guarantee the traditional rota for the semi-finals, even if the four champions qualify for the last four.

For illustrative purposes, let's assume that the four favourites, Galway, Kerry, Donegal and Dublin win the provincial titles. Galway and Kerry will be in one round-robin group, with Dublin and Donegal in the other.

Paddy McBrearty. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Paddy McBrearty. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

And let's further assume that the four provincial champions finish first and second in the two groups. That would leave Kerry and Galway on the same side, with Dublin and Donegal on the other.

Under the old rota system, the semi-final line-up would be: Dublin v Galway and Donegal v Kerry.

Under the new format, the pairings will be decided by finishing places, with the winners in Group A (Kerry or Galway) playing the runners-up in Group B (Dublin or Donegal) and vice versa.

So if Dublin topped their group and Kerry finished second on the other side, they would meet in the semi-final, which could not have happened under the previous arrangement.

While most of the attention will be on the provincial finals this and next weekend, the qualifiers are also very interesting.

Indeed, the Round 3 and Round 4 draws will prove hugely important in determining the relative strengths of the two quarter-final groups.

There's a possibility that one will be much stronger than the other, which would be a bad start for the new format. Again, for illustrative purposes, let's assume that the eight favourites win the Round 2 qualifier games next weekend.

It would leave Tyrone, Mayo, Monaghan, Cavan, Armagh, Kildare, Clare and Louth drawn against each other in Round 3.

Colm Basquel. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm Basquel. Photo: Sportsfile

If the stronger counties from that group are paired against each other it leaves openings for lower-ranked teams to progress to Round 4 which, in all probability, will also include Laois (Division 4) and Fermanagh (Division 3).

Lower-division teams have reached the quarter-finals in the past, but the impact would be greater this time as the quarter-finals involve two groups and three games for each county. Effectively, it would create the risk of a number of lopsided games.

For example, if one quarter-final group was made up of Dublin, Donegal, Fermanagh and Clare, with Galway, Kerry, Mayo and Tyrone on the other, it would look seriously lopsided.

Those who opposed the introduction of the new system in the first place would have their arguments strengthened if the two groups weren't evenly balanced.

Nobody would have foreseen Fermanagh (Division 3 this year) and Laois (Division 4) qualifying for their provincial finals, which means that they still have two chances of reaching the 'Super 8'.

Fermanagh's advance has been mighty impressive, ignoring their outsiders' tag to beat Armagh and Monaghan - challenges that the top powers elsewhere in the country would have been happy to avoid.

After surviving extra-time against Wexford in the Leinster first round, Laois have walked a steady line to the final, although it remains to be seen how well games against Westmeath and Carlow have prepared them for the collision with Dublin's mighty juggernaut.

Frankly, there's no evidence of anything going on in the rest of Leinster to suggest the gap between them and Dublin is narrowing. Unfortunately, the opposite appears to be the case, based on this year's results.

With four teams, Mayo, Tyrone, Monaghan and Kildare, who were in Division 1 this year and Cavan (promoted from Division 2) already in the qualifiers, they are being watched most closely as they appear most likely to challenge for 'Super 8' slots later on. Armagh are worth monitoring too.

Mayo, Tyrone and Monaghan were all fancied in their own provinces but have had to re-set and prepare for the long route towards the 'Super 8'.

Mayo and Tyrone have shown themselves to be good at it in the past, as have Kildare, who re-established their equilibrium against Derry last Saturday.

Here's how the top six in the qualifiers are shaping up.

Mayo

They enjoyed a gentle return to the championship last weekend when hitting Limerick for 5-19. Significantly, it marked the return of Lee Keegan, whose absence against Galway may well been the difference in such a tight contest.

It's Mayo's third successive season on the qualifier trail - and this one is longer than the previous two as they started in Round 1 - so they know what it takes to stay afloat on the winding circuit.

There were easier opponents for them than Tipperary in last Monday's draw, although it remains to be seen how Liam Kearns' squad recover from a surprisingly heavy defeat by Cork.

Still, they are a lot better than they looked that day and having run Mayo to five points in the 2016 All-Ireland semi-final after suffering an early setback when Robbie Kiely was black-carded, they will see this as an opportunity to make a bold statement about their real status.

Interestingly, the bookies rate Mayo at 12/1 for the All-Ireland, the same price as Donegal, who have won their first three Ulster games very impressively.

Unlike Donegal, Mayo's safety net has been removed, but their reliability in the qualifiers over the last two years has clearly convinced the markets that they will be in the 'Super 8' mix.

Indeed, there are many who believe that they are still the most likely to dethrone Dublin, a theory that's hard to dispute based on the rivalry between the counties over the last six years.

Tyrone

Pre-championship favourites to retain the Ulster title, they have drifted out to 18/1 for the All-Ireland after losing to Monaghan and coming so close to exiting altogether against Meath.

It's being interpreted as a sign that Tyrone have flat-lined, but the same was said about Mayo last year after Derry came so close to beating them in Castlebar, and they ended up playing in September.

That's the thing about attaching too much significance to any one game. Tyrone did not look like All-Ireland contenders last Saturday, but they still managed to survive.

And, with due respect to Carlow, it's very unlikely that they will outwit Mickey Harte's experienced hands next Saturday.

History has shown that Tyrone often build solidly through the qualifiers so there's every chance they will be in Croke Park for the start of the 'Super 8' in mid-July.

Monaghan

They needed a good draw to ease themselves back into the championship groove after the shock of losing to Fermanagh and they duly got it when paired with Waterford.

Tom McGlinchey's men delivered only Waterford's second qualifier win when beating Wexford but Monaghan will be a massive step up in class.

Much now depends on their attitude after blowing the chance to win an Ulster title for which they were warm favourites after beating Tyrone.

They reacted well to the qualifiers last year, having bombed against Longford in Clones in the third round in 2016.

Which Monaghan will turn up on the 'back-door' trail?

The clash with Waterford won't provide a definitive answer, but on the basis that any team can have a bad day, their supporters are entitled to believe there's a lot more left in the squad.

Kildare

Having ended their losing run against Derry last Saturday, the Lilywhites could enjoy a much better summer than appeared likely after the defeat by Carlow.

Good 'back-door' campaigns were almost taken for granted during Kieran McGeeney's time in Kildare and while that may not appear relevant now, history shows that some counties take to the qualifiers better than others and tend to replicate it quite often.

Kildare face a tricky assignment away to Longford next Saturday but, if they survive that, the season could really open up for them.

Cavan

Their meeting with Down next Saturday looks nicely set up for them but then it's an all-Ulster clash so the script is always under threat. Cavan lost at home in the qualifiers in each of the last four seasons so maybe it's just as well that Kingspan Breffni Park is not available for the Down game.

Cavan badly need a qualifier run to build on their success in the league, where they won promotion to Division 1.

Armagh

Their performance in the easy win over Westmeath last weekend was in stark contrast to their miserable effort against Fermanagh in Ulster, so perhaps their season is back on track.

They handled Sligo easily in their league clash in spring so there's every chance they will survive the trip to Markievicz Park next Saturday and be in Monday week's third-round draw.

Armagh beat Fermanagh, Westmeath, Tipperary and Kildare last summer so they know how to negotiate the qualifier fences.

Irish Independent

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