Wednesday 26 September 2018

Western collision is perfect pipe-opener between two real contenders for All-Ireland honours

Galway’s Paul Conroy (left) clashes with Cillian O’Connor of Mayo, with Aidan O’Shea on the ground, as referee Anthony Nolan (centre) looks on during the sides’ league encounter Photo: Sportsfile
Galway’s Paul Conroy (left) clashes with Cillian O’Connor of Mayo, with Aidan O’Shea on the ground, as referee Anthony Nolan (centre) looks on during the sides’ league encounter Photo: Sportsfile
New backroom boy and former Mickey Harte sidekick Paddy Tally’s influence is obvious. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

It’s traditional at this time of year to complain that after all the build-up the All-Ireland football championship is beginning with a whimper. Why couldn’t the GAA arrange for a bang instead, ask people who seem to be thinking of something like Dublin and Kerry under lights in Croke Park.

There should be no complaints this year. Next Sunday the championship begins in earnest with a showdown between two of Gaelic football’s best teams. The sides are evenly matched, contain some of the game’s best players and will be continuing one of the GAA’s great local rivalries. What more could you want?

To add even more spice, it’s a game both teams badly need to win. In the last two years Mayo have managed to bounce back magnificently after losing to Galway but this year feels different. Galway’s win in Castlebar two years ago was a classic example of favourites getting caught napping. Last year, the sending-off of Keith Higgins and the plethora of late chances missed by Mayo cast doubts over the worth of Galway’s victory which were confirmed in the Connacht final.

In those games Mayo played like a team with bigger fish to fry. This year Galway are one of the big fish and Mayo are a side running out of time.  Despite the miraculous powers of rejuvenation displayed in the past they will want to avoid another qualifier odyssey in a campaign where the Super Eights will impose extra demands.

After all, what might have happened had Mayo arrived in the last two All-Ireland finals by the same straightforward route as Dublin sides whose barnstorming finishes showed the virtues of freshness?

This year Mayo won’t under-estimate Galway because they’ve been forewarned by the Tribesmen’s league campaign. The visitors may even bear the greater burden of expectation on Sunday after the rave reviews which greeted their league final display against Dublin. For the first time since the John O’Mahony era, Galway seem like contenders.

That final display was perhaps overpraised. Galway lost by four points to a Dublin team who were a man down for the last 20 minutes and some way off their best. In McHale Park they’ll face a team who last September almost beat the Dubs in a game whose speed, intensity and high-pressure atmosphere were unlike anything Galway have ever faced.

Mayo will be encouraged by the memory of how completely the visitors wilted against Roscommon and Kerry last year. But it was obvious during the league campaign that the Tribesmen were aware of their reputation as a soft touch. The spikiness of their display against Mayo seemed an aggressive redefinition of the team’s character.

New backroom boy and former Mickey Harte sidekick Paddy Tally’s influence is obvious. The best defensive record in the league illustrated  the team’s new resilience and obduracy. Yet the real test of Galway next Sunday won’t be whether they’re willing to square up to Mayo off the ball. Psychological toughness will be required to withstand a furious opening onslaught.

We know to a large extent what Mayo will be like. They possess a very high overall level of basic competence. Colm Boyle, Tom Parsons, Kevin McLoughlin, Paddy Durcan, Cillian O’Connor et al are good players who usually play well.

Having defied time last year Andy Moran will relish having a crack at a Galway full-back line which creaked a little against Dublin. The deployment of Aidan O’Shea could be crucial against a Galway side which is not particularly powerful in the central positions. Mayo gonna Mayo.

Galway are a more intriguing prospect because so many questions remain. Seán Andy ó Ceallaigh is a hugely promising full-back but might he be a little raw to cope with Moran? Can Peter Cooke or Ciarán Duggan really  match Tom Parsons? If Mayo curb Damien Comer where are the scores going to come from?

Can Shane Walsh, that serial provider of highlight reel moments, finally produce one great sustained performance? Are Barry McHugh and Eamon Brannigan good enough to thrive against defenders who’ve shut down the best in the game?  We’ll find out. If Galway win in Castlebar they will come of age as a serious force. But to win they’ll have to show more than they did in 2016 and 2017 or in the league final.

Mayo are used to being told how good the opposition are. Take September out of the equation and no-one is better at winning big matches than Stephen Rochford’s side. Mayo like waiting in the long grass. It’s their natural habitat.

People condescend to the Connacht Championship. But right now it’s the best provincial championship, and the only one containing two genuine All-Ireland contenders.

Sunday’s game may hinge on whether Mayo got more out of last year’s championship than it got out of them. There could be no better pipe-opener.

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