Sunday 18 August 2019

Super 8s breakdown: A look at the counties in Race for Sam and who is most likely to stop Dublin

Mayo, Cork and Meath join five of last year’s ‘Super 8’ in quarter-finals

Kerry's Tadhg Morley breaks away from Dean Rock
Kerry's Tadhg Morley breaks away from Dean Rock
Dublin's Con O'Callaghan. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Kerry's Gavin White. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Donegal's Jamie Brennan. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Tyrone's Ben McDonnell. Photo: Ben McShane/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

The great irony of the All-Ireland football championship is that after four weeks of ruthless culling on the qualifier circuit, there's a return to a gentler world at the quarter-final stages, initially at least.

Not everyone is comfortable with that. There's a view that if a round-robin format is to be accommodated it should apply in the earlier rounds, rather than when only eight counties remain as is now the case.

The round-robin format works well in the Munster and Leinster hurling championships, but since they are both confined to five teams, it's easily managed.

Also, standards are more even than in football where there are wide variations. It makes a round-robin system unworkable in the provincial championships, but whether that justifies replacing four knockout quarter-finals with 12 games is open to debate.

This is the second season of the three-year experiment, so it will be interesting to gauge the reaction after another series of 'Super 8s' games have been completed.

Motivation

Roscommon v Dublin was the only Round 3 game that didn't matter last year, although Kildare (eliminated) and Galway (guaranteed a semi-final place) were hardly on maximum motivation when losing heavily to Kerry and Monaghan respectively.

'Dead-rubber' games in the last round remain a big threat to the longer-term viability of the Super 8s format, so its supporters will be hoping that both groups remain competitive all the way to the finish this year.

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By the first weekend in August, the semi-finalists will have been decided, with Dublin, Tyrone, Kerry and Mayo my tips to make it to the last four.

Taking it a step further, I'm predicting Kerry v Tyrone and Dublin v Mayo semi-finals, with the Kingdom emerging as the last obstacle to Dublin's All-Ireland five-in-a-row ambitions.

And then? Let's wait until nearer the day to make a call.

Dublin's bid for a place in history as the first county in either football or hurling to win five in a row has added greatly to the intrigue in a championship where the action hasn't really fired the imagination yet.

Whether the Super 8s manage to do that remains to be seen, but looking at the line-up, it doesn't exactly inspire confidence that there will be drama all the way.

Five of last year's quarter-finalists, Dublin, Kerry, Donegal, Roscommon and Tyrone, have qualified again, with Mayo, Cork and Meath replacing Galway, Kildare and Monaghan.

In league terms, it's five from this year's Division 1 line-up: Dublin, Kerry, Mayo, Roscommon, Tyrone and three (Donegal, Meath, Cork) from Division 2. That leaves Galway, Monaghan and Cavan as the three Division 1 teams that failed to make the cut.

Donegal and Meath will be in Division 1 next year, with Roscommon heading for Division 2, while Cork are Division 3-bound.

The Rebels, who finished second from bottom in Division 2 this year, are the lowest-ranked county in the Super 8s, although their form since being relegated last March suggests that they are improving rapidly.

Back in the quarter-finals for the first time since 2014, their clash with Dublin in Croke Park next Saturday will tell a lot about the true worth of Ronan McCarthy's side.

Heartbreak

After missing out last year, Mayo return to the quarter-finals with a sense of unfinished business, having endured so much heartbreak in All-Ireland finals and semi-finals between 2012 and 2017.

Given their close games with Dublin in 2013-'15-'16-'17, they will feel that they are better equipped than any of the other contenders to end the five-in-a-row dream, and with the momentum behind them after an exciting run in the qualifiers, there's certainly belief among their supporters.

That's assuming they take one of the semi-final slots in a group where Kerry and Donegal are priced ahead of them on the odds list.

That's down to the latter pair's success in the Munster and Ulster Championships respectively, the reliability of which is open to question.

Here's my ranking order ahead of the start of the Super 8s . . .

1 Dublin

Untested in Leinster for a seventh successive season (their last relatively close call was in the 2012 final when Meath ran them to three points), they have repeatedly shown that they can adapt quickly to the higher demands posed by the best from other provinces.

They will need to do it again as Louth and Kildare never looked capable of stretching them. Meath posed some awkward questions in the first half of the Leinster final, but helpfully provided Dublin with the answers before they had even begun trying to figure them out.

There were aspects of the first half which will have concerned Jim Gavin. Meath created lots of chances, but were let down by dreadful shooting and poor decision-making.

A slicker outfit would have returned a decent yield off a similar amount of possession.

With their first two Super 8s games in Croke Park against Cork and Roscommon, Dublin may well have qualified for the semi-finals before playing Tyrone in Omagh.

That would suit them ideally as they do not want to get dragged into a winner-take-all dogfight in Healy Park.

Only time will tell if the five-in-a-row pressure takes its toll on the Dubs. They have been indoctrinated with the mantra that 'we're not even thinking about it' but nobody believes them.

Of course it's on their minds and will become ever-more invasive over the coming weeks as the big prize comes into clearer focus.

Top scorer: C Costello 1-24 (0-13f, 0-4 '45s')

Top scorer from play: P Mannion 0-12

All-Ireland odds: 1/2

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Cormac Costello of Dublin

2 Kerry

They conceded three goals to Mayo when losing the Allianz League final last March and three more to Cork when winning the Munster final last month. It's one of the reasons why there's a lot of scepticism about Kerry's true value as Peter Keane takes the new model into the fast lane.

That's understandable, but it would be unwise to assume that the problem won't be sorted out.

Small tweaks can make a big difference and if Kerry improve their defensive security, then they are the biggest threat to Dublin's five-in-a-row ambitions.

The attack has the pace and power to unhinge any defence and, as has been proven repeatedly over the years, nothing solidifies an entire team more than a confidence that the front line can be relied on to return a sizeable haul on a consistent basis.

With Dublin expected to top the other Super 8s group, Kerry will be very determined to win theirs, not only to avoid Gavin's history-chasers in the semi-final but also to make a statement about their status as the real deal.

The more optimistic Kerry supporters believe that the county is on the cusp of another golden age as the successful minor teams of recent years feed talent into the senior cycle.

But is this year too soon for them or will the prospect of watching Dublin reach the ultimate peak accelerate their development?

Top scorer: S O'Shea 0-13 (0-11f)

Top scorer from play: D Clifford 0-5

Odds: 13/2

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Kerry's David Clifford in action against Cork's Liam O'Donovan. Photo: Sportsfile

3 Mayo

Are they better off than if they won the Connacht title? It didn't look good when they lost the semi-final to Roscommon but that's irrelevant now that they are back in All-Ireland contention.

As Connacht winners, Roscommon are in the same group as Dublin and Tyrone, who are expected to take the top two places.

Mayo probably feel they have a better chance in a group where Kerry and Donegal are their main rivals for the two semi-final slots.

Mayo's sheer doggedness has to be admired. Their response to every adversity that has been tossed their way is to battle through it and now that they are heading towards the business end of the campaign, their energy levels will rise further.

Dublin would never admit it, but they will be well pleased if Mayo don't reach the last four. Whatever it is about Mayo, it bothers Dublin, which is not what they want in such a special season.

Top scorer: D Coen 0-13 (all from play)

Odds: 10/1

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Darren Coen of Mayo in action against Sean Mullooly of Roscommon. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

4 Donegal

Would last year's championship have taken a different complexion if Paddy McBrearty hadn't picked up a serious injury in the Ulster final against Fermanagh?

It took one of the best forwards in the game out of the Super 8s, a loss that made Dublin's and Tyrone's progress to the semi-final considerably easier.

McBrearty is back now and scoring freely (0-9 from play against Fermanagh, Tyrone, Cavan), as is Jamie Brennan, who scored 2-11, all from play, in those three games. He really is one of the stars of the season.

Interestingly, Donegal are getting a higher proportion of their scores from play than most of their rivals, underlining the space they are creating in the attacking zones.

Their Super 8s clash with Mayo in Round 3 in Castlebar could well be to decide who joins Kerry in the semi-finals.

Stephen Rochford's detailed knowledge of Mayo will be very helpful to a Donegal cause that their supporters believe will take them past the Super 8s and maybe even all the way to ultimate glory.

Top scorer: J Brennan 2-11 (all from play)

Odds: 7/1

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Donegal's Jamie Brennan. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

5 Tyrone

Qualifier specialists - they have lost only four from 36 - Mickey Harte's men have once again regrouped through the 'back door' and prepared a solid case for the quarter-finals.

With the exception of the Ulster semi-final against Donegal, they have been very impressive, averaging nearly 25 points against Derry, Antrim, Longford, Kildare and Cavan.

However, they failed the Donegal test, which leaves doubts over whether they have progressed from last year.

There's still time to do that and they will certainly feel that a semi-final place is achievable in a group that also features Dublin, Cork and Roscommon.

After that, they would most likely be playing Kerry, Donegal or Mayo in the semi-final.

Top scorer: C McShane 2-29 (0-14f)

Top scorer from play: C McShane 2-15

Odds: 9/1

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Cathal McShane of Tyrone in action against Padraig Faulkner of Cavan

6 Roscommon

It seems so long since they won the Connacht title that they're almost forgotten about, which is exactly as Anthony Cunningham wants it. Away from Roscommon, few expect them to reach the semi-finals, but then they were outsiders against Mayo and Galway too, games they won without even conceding a goal.

Cunningham hailed his side's courage after recovering from a five-point half-time deficit against Galway to win by four, pointing out that it's only when a team is struggling that you discover their real character. Roscommon certainly haven't been found wanting in that regard this year. They have Tyrone at home in Dr Hyde Park next Saturday, a game they will fancy. They drew with Tyrone in the league in February, so they know what's required.

Tyrone were stuck in a bad patch at the time and are much-improved, but Roscommon's confidence is high too after winning Connacht for the second time in three seasons.

Tyrone beat them by 18 points in last year's Super 8s tie in Croke Park on a day when Roscommon conceded 4-24. They have a much better defensive shape this year as Tyrone will discover.

Top scorer: C Cox 0-15 (0-6f)

Top scorer from play: C Cox 0-9

Odds: 50/1

Rossies.png
12 May 2019; Conor Cox of Roscommon in action against Micheal McWeeney of Leitrim during the Connacht GAA Football Senior Championship Quarter-Final match between Roscommon and Leitrim at Dr Hyde Park in Roscommon. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

7 Meath

They became the first Leinster runners-up to win a Round 4 game since Kildare in 2009 when beating Clare yesterday.

It wasn't a performance which suggested they will be strong semi-final contenders, but at least it banished the horrible memories from the Leinster final and took them into the All-Ireland quarter-final for the first time since 2010.

They have hit three targets this year, winning promotion to Division 1, reaching the Leinster final and the Super 8s. The big defeat by Dublin was a setback, but they're through it now and in bonus territory.

Unfortunately for them, their home game (v Kerry) doesn't come until the last round, by which stage they could be out of contention.

Of course, Meath will feel they have a good chance against Donegal next Sunday, having run them to two points twice in Division 2 this year.

However, Donegal's form since then suggests they have advanced more than Meath.

Top scorer: M Newman 3-20 (0-14f, 1-0 pen)

Top scorer from play: M Newman 2-6; B Menton 3-3

Odds: 100/1

Meath pan.png
Mickey Newman of Meath scores his side's second goal, from a penalty, during the Leinster GAA Football Senior Championship Semi-Final match between Meath and Laois at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

8 Cork

What are we to make of a team that averaged 13 points during a league campaign that ended with relegation to Division 3 and have since averaged 26 points against Limerick, Kerry and Laois? Is there something seriously impressive stirring on Leeside again?

The answer will come over the next few weeks when they play Dublin, Tyrone and Roscommon in quick succession. Their goal-scoring rate has been quite phenomenal, yielding three each against Limerick and Kerry and four against Laois. That's after scoring three in their last league game against Armagh.

Brian Hurley's return to fitness has been massive for Cork. He scored two goals against Armagh and took his opportunism through to the championship, where he has hit five goals in three games. Jim Gavin will be studying the videos before next Saturday's clash with Dublin.

Top Scorer: Michael Collins 1-25 (0-5 f)

Top Scorer from play: B Hurley 5-4

Odds: 66/1

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Brian Hurley of Cork in action against Sean O'Dea of Limerick during the Munster GAA Football Senior Championship semi-final match between Cork and Limerick at Páirc Ui Rinn in Cork. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile

SUPER 8s SCHEDULE

Saturday July 13
Group 2 Phase 1

Roscommon v Tyrone
Dr Hyde Park, 5.0

Dublin v Cork
Croke Park, 7.0

Sunday July 14
Group 1 Phase 1

Donegal v Meath
Ballybofey, 2.0

Kerry v Mayo
Killarney, 4.0

Saturday, July 20
Group 2 Phase 2

Cork v Tyrone
Croke Park 5.0

Dublin v Roscommon
Croke Park, 7.0

Sunday, July 21
Group 1 Phase 2

Mayo v Meath
Croke Park, 2.0

Kerry v Donegal
Croke Park, 4.0

Saturday/Sunday Aug 3/4
Group 1 phase 3

Mayo v Donegal
Castlebar

Meath v Kerry
Navan

Group 2 phrase 3

Cork v Roscommon
Páirc Uí Chaoimh

Tyrone v Dublin
Omagh

Dates and throw-in times for the last rounds have yet to be finalised. The two games in each group will be played simultaneously.

The top two teams in each group advance to the All-Ireland semi-finals, where the top team in Group 1 meets the second placed team in Group 2 and vice versa.

In the event of teams finishing level in the group stages, scoring difference will determine finishing order if more than two teams are tied. If two teams are tied, the result of their head-to-head game will decide who advances.

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