Saturday 19 October 2019

Peter Canavan: 'Reformed Roscommon look ready for big time'

Defensive solidity means they will be a much different prospect in Super 8s this season

Case for defence: Conor Daly brushes aside Galway’s Ian Burke to sweep up the danger during the Connacht final. Photo: Sportsfile
Case for defence: Conor Daly brushes aside Galway’s Ian Burke to sweep up the danger during the Connacht final. Photo: Sportsfile

Peter Canavan

In the last few days I read about Enda Smith's thoughts on Roscommon's performances in the Super 8s last summer.

He didn't mince his words when he talked about how the squad were embarrassed by how they had played. If I was from Roscommon, I'd be encouraged. That's the kind of talk you'd want to hear from a player who was hurting and a side that expect more from themselves.

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They had been around the block at that stage, had tasted Division 1 football and won a Connacht title but somehow looked totally out of their depth. In those games, Roscommon conceded 4-24, 0-20 and 4-24 against Tyrone, Donegal and a second-string Dublin. It wasn't hard to figure out where they needed to improve.

So Roscommon have changed how they play but there has been change in Roscommon too. Anthony Cunningham has come in and given this side a harder edge.

From the start of this year, Roscommon have been a flintier version of themselves while their personnel have changed too.

For their championship opener against Leitrim this year, they named just four of the side that started the previous year's Connacht final. The overhaul in the panel isn't quite as dramatic as that figure would suggest but a new broom sweeps clean and Roscommon won't concede anything like those sort of tallies this time.

Now they have a defensive system to cope with the top teams, as Mayo and Galway can attest. Galway managed just two points in the second half of their Connacht final. Mayo's return on their shots-to-scores ratio was poor too which is a measure of how much pressure they were under - they had to shoot from distance.

And Roscommon don't just get bodies back. There have been plenty of examples in the last few weeks of teams willing to work hard but not working smart. Kildare and Cavan have been prime examples. They'd have loads of bodies around but they are being passive and not taking up the correct positions. When Roscommon defend, they do it with purpose.

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Credit to Cunningham, everyone knows their job in defence. And on top of that they have a handful of players who seem to enjoy defending and winning turnovers and making tackles. Roscommon are playing like a team who are happy in their skin.

When they do win the ball, they send it up to their three attackers. Cathal Cregg is the architect and their link man. When he gets it, he usually has space to run in, as witnessed by the brilliant goal he scored against Mayo. And inside they have two proper poachers in Diarmuid Murtagh and Conor Cox.

Cox, in particular, has been a revelation. Players who move counties rarely make such an impact. At first sight, he doesn't seem like the kind of player who possesses burning pace and he certainly doesn't always play the percentages of the simple out ball.

Instead, a little bit like Darren Coen, he thrives on instinct and brilliant ball-striking and is willing to shoot, and score, from anywhere. I'm glad to see a move back towards those sort of players who only want to score.

Down's James McCartan was like that - scoring was only thing on his mind when he got the ball and when you can hit the target like those boys can, it can cause all sorts of problems.

Are they ready for Tyrone and can they bridge the chasm that was between the teams last year? Well, they certainly have all the motivation. Any time a team put 4-24 on you, you are going to have a point to prove.

They'll also feel they should have won the league match when the sides met in the Hyde. Roscommon had Tyrone beaten that day but they coughed up a free through a bit of petulance that would surely have won it for them.

Bother

They'll also have noticed that pretty much everyone expects Tyrone and Dublin to come out of the group without much bother. That can only drive them on.

However, they'll need to find a way to secure more ball on their own kick-out. Much of Galway's dominance in the first half was based around the fact that Roscommon were struggling to win their own restarts. That wasn't so much of an issue in the second half because Roscommon were so on top they rarely let Galway out of the half. But you can be sure Tyrone and Mickey Harte will be looking at ways to make that work to their advantage.

As for Tyrone, well the mood in the county is that this trip to Roscommon is the first real test since the Donegal game. They missed out badly that day but since then they have beaten teams they have been expected to beat.

I'm not sure we saw anything from Tyrone against Cavan that we didn't know already but when Tyrone get into that sort of rhythm they are very hard to stop.

If they can find that groove again, they can get off to a winning start.

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