Cork vs Kilkenny All Ireland Quarter Final 2pm Sunday
There has been some debate about whether or not The Cats are in a downward spiral or if the rest of the country is catching up. I don’t think there can be any doubt that this Kilkenny team is inferior to the class of 2009. That’s no slight on the current team given the level the ’09 version were operating at but their goal scoring record alone this season illustrates the drop off. The spirit and attitude they exhibited against Waterford showed why they are the champions that they are and was arguably as impressive as when they dished out hiding after hiding at the peak of their powers.
Kilkenny looked weary against Waterford at times but this can be explained at least in part by the mental fatigue the Tipp fixture one week earlier would have undoubtedly caused. They also have a number of forwards back firing in particular, Richie Power & Richie Hogan. Things look infinitely brighter for The Cats than they did the week leading into the Tipp game in Nowlan Park especially with Michael Fennelly likely to be restored to the starting 15. Question marks remain over Henry Shefflin though.
The sending off of Patrick Horgan (who had his red card correctly rescinded) makes the Cork performance in the Munster Final difficult to gauge and it’s hard to know where they’re really at. They looked very impressive against Clare and thoroughly deserved their win while playing some lovely hurling in the process. They were wasteful against Limerick and probably should have been ahead before Horgan’s sending off swung the game decisively in Limerick’s favour. The absence of Brian Murphy cannot be overstated and he has been the only person to shackle the impressive Tony Kelly this year.
The Kilkenny rearguard won the Tipp game and you wonder if Cork have the firepower up front to beat the defending All Ireland champions? Pace and movement which was conspicuously absent from the Tipp forwards was provided at times by the Deise against Kilkenny and this is the key to upsetting the Kilkenny backs or any back line for that matter. Standing under high ball waiting for Kilkenny to dominate aerially is a recipe for disaster. Pa Cronin looks like one of the few players at JBM’s disposal capable of competing with this Kilkenny half back line in the air. This places a massive onus on the delivery of the ball from 1-9 to be intelligent. They mixed up their game against Clare beautifully running on occasion and going short when the long direct ball wasn’t on, more of the same will be required this Sunday.
Kilkenny are firm favourites for this one but it looks almost certain to come down to the wire, if the rest of the championship is anything to go by. If Cork can replicate the type of play that saw them dominate Clare in the Munster semi-final then they have every chance of causing an upset. There is definitely more in them than they showed against Limerick and it’s easy to see a big improvement coming from The Rebels. Kilkenny will have to put together a performance we’ve not seen from them yet this year though to get over the line. The nature of the Waterford win showed us just how adept they are at grinding out the win. You get the feeling teams have to be three or four points a better team to win by one against The Cats. Cork are in with every chance and I will be taking them +4 in the handicap market in a game I think is closer than the odds suggest.
Galway vs Clare All Ireland Quarter Final 4pm
In a summer that has been as unpredictable as it has been spectacular, Galway have remained on the periphery looking in having yet to raise a gallop. Their only success to date was a lethargic seven point win over Laois in the Leinster semi-final. Galway were rightly vilified for a feeble performance against Dublin but although losing by twelve points in the end they were a superb Gary Maguire save away from narrowing the gap to just three points with five minutes to go. They showed at least some glimpse of the form that ran Kilkenny so close last year, albeit only fleetingly.
Clare have been quietly impressive this year. They’ve beaten Waterford and followed up their loss to Cork with a comfortable victory over Laois and a win over Wexford, in a game they looked like coasting towards in seventy minutes but needed extra time. A lack of experience probably made it a little nervier than it needed to be from a Banner perspective. They pulled away impressively in extra time because they were the superior team, not because they are the fittest team in living memory as is being reported in places. There was no mention of fitness when Cork dominated them in the second half of the Munster semi final!
The Tribesmen looked like they were badly in need of a game against Dublin and it took them an age to get up to the pace of championship hurling. It was interesting to note that their training sessions have been closed to outsiders for the past couple of weeks and it’s easy to envisage the intensity being increased in training matches in the hopes of getting up to the required pitch. Joe Canning was the sole bright spot in the Leinster Final and much has been made about his placement on the 50 at times during their games. I think far too much is being made of where he lines out, be it at the edge of the square or further from goal. That being said I’m sure Anthony Cunningham will have noted that there are scores to be had off this Clare full back line.
Clare’s short passing game can be infuriating to watch at times and while I despise the ‘get rid of it’ mentality, there comes a time in every game where the safety of direct ball is required and exactly what their inside line need! Tony Kelly at centre forward has lit up the championship with some spectacular long range scores and is ably assisted by John Conlon who is a true ball winner with an eye for a score. In fact Conlon’s injury in the Munster Semi-Final might have swung that one in favour of The Rebels.
On form Galway have no right to be installed as favourites for this one but the impression they left last summer lives on. They will only have to go some way towards recapturing that level of form to beat The Banner. Clare look like they are at least a couple of players short of being genuine All Ireland contenders and they may well be unearthed over the next couple of years such is the stream of underage talent emerging in the West. There’s no doubt Galway have the greater potential to go on and lift the Liam McCarthy this year, they also have Joe Canning! The Portumna man is likely to be the difference this Sunday.
London vs Cavan (Croke Park, Saturday 15:00)
London have exceeded all expectations and done fantastically well to reach this stage. No matter what happens from here this has been their greatest ever season and one which will be remembered and talked about for years to come.
Cavan are on their own summer odyssey this year after years in the wilderness and with Croke Park on the horizon it is very hard to see Terry Hyland's charges falling at this stage. Martin Dune, Cian Mackey and David Givney have all been relvelations for the Breffni men this year and their good form will see them through.
London will be disappointed after their Connacht final defeat but they can take great confidence from the fact that nobody could live with Mayo in that championship and the fact that they did not lie down, they scored the final two points of the game, and that they created a number of goal opportunities. Lorcan Mulvey, facing his native county, Tony Gaughan and Ciaran McCallion will need to keep up their good performances while super sub Sean Kelly could have a say in proceedings if the game is tight in the second half.
Cavan have been riding a crest of a wave, via their recent under 21 successes, and despite their defeat to Monaghan are motoring well on their way through the championship. They will have looked on with envy as Monaghan took Donegal apart to win the Ulster title knowing that it could easily have been them in that position. They should come out on top as they are overall a better side than London and the six day turnaround has not been helpful to beaten provincial finalists over the years.
Cork vs Galway (Croke Park, Saturday 17:00)
Galway have surprised many, including their own supporters, by reaching this stage of the championship. After their hammering at the hands of Mayo the Tribesmen were completely written off, with many people even predicting they would come undone at home against Tipperary in the first round. Alan Mulholland's side were lucky to get through that day and even luckier a week later against Waterford. Armagh last Saturday was meant to be a bridge too far but Galway had other ideas.
A stellar performance, one the supporters have been waiting to see outside Connacht for almost ten years, saw them past the previously impressive Orchard county. Paul Conroy and Michael Meehan led from the front as the men in maroon and white tore through the Armagh defence and managed to replicate the Cavan defence in keeping Jamie Clarke quiet for 70 minutes. Considering the damage Clarke inflicted against Wicklow and Leitrim that is no mean feat!
While Galway are coming into this game with a renewed confidence, Cork are coming in off the back of a defeat and poor performance in the Munster final three weeks ago. Sure they came back in the second half and made a game of it but Kerry had taken their foot off the gas by then and were never going to lose that game.
Conor Counihan does not seem to know his best side and continues to persist with the likes of Noel O'Leary and Graham Canty when it is clear to all watching that they are not as good as they once were and are only being picked on reputation. Surely there are younger players in the Cork squad more than capable of stepping up and replacing the older men in the panel. James Loughrey has proven to be a revelation in the Cork defence but around him are players also living off reputation. Cadogan, Shields and Aidan Walsh have not performed to nearly their potential over the past two seasons.
For Cork to come out on top Counihan is going to have to change his selection policy and the previously mentioned players are going to have to rediscover their best form. Galway have grown up as this championship has gone on and are finding leaders all over the field just when they need them. They are only one step behind Mayo now in the championship and will be more than up for the challenge of joining their western neighbours in the last eight, and possibly getting another crack at James Horan's men.
This game will be much tighter than people expect and I believe that momentum can carry the Tribesmen to another famous victory. In 2001 they defeated Armagh and then Cork to reach the last eight. History could repeat itself this weekend.
Donegal vs Laois (Pairc Sean Mac Diarmada, Saturday 17:00)
The qualifier game nobody expected to see. Donegal being in the fourth round of qualifiers is even more surprising to many people than London being still involved at the end of July. Unbackable favourites to win the Ulster championship, Donegal and Mayo were supposed to be on a collision course in the All-Ireland semi final. Monaghan put paid to that and here we are, waiting to see can Jim McGuinness rebuild his team to take on Laois just six days after a demoralising defeat.
Donegal seem to have been struck down by the curse of defending champions. In 2012 injuries and loss of form stayed well away from them, but so far this year they have been hit hard by both. Relegation from the league was written off before the championship while Tyrone and Down were put to the sword, albeit unconvincingly. Donegal were still expected to account for Monaghan but nobody realised that with Karl Lacey unfit, Neil Gallagher not ready for 70 minutes and Mark McHugh leaving the field after 10 minutes Donegal are just not the same team. Factor in that Monaghan excellently kept Michael Murphy, Colm McFadden and Paddy McBrearty quiet while Leo McLoone, Anthony Thompson and Rory Kavanagh have not been able to recreate their 2012 form and Donegal suddenly look like a tired team.
The question remains whether Donegal have a strong team or a strong squad. Currently it is looking like Donegal do not have the players in reserve to fill gaps left by Lacey, McHugh and others when needed. If McFadden is off form there is nobody to replace him and add something to the team. Jim McGuinness's biggest challenge since taking the job three years ago is going to be building them up again for the Laois game and attempting to get his players back to the form and belief that they had last year. McHugh is a huge loss as he is probably the most central figure to Donegal's style of play and replacing him could be the making or breaking of Donegal's season.
Laois, on the other hand, are coming into this game on the back of a good run through the qualifiers for the second year in a row. Carlow, Clare and Wexford have been put to one side and Justin McNulty will be aiming to get his side into the last eight yet again. Colm Begley has been improving with every game and the likes of Padraic Clancy, Donie Kingston and Ross Munnelly leading from the front the midlands side will believe that they have the tools in their armoury to take advantage of any potential weakness in Donegal's performance.
Down, in 2012, are the only side since the creation of the qualifiers to turn around six days after a provincial final defeat and win. Donegal are probably the best side to go through the six day turnaround but the qualifiers has proven to be a graveyard for better teams than Donegal in the past. Tyrone in 2006 were the last defending champions to fail in the quest to reach the quarter finals and it was Laois who ended their reign at the top. Carrick on Shannon is certainly in for a great game on Saturday as McNulty and McGuinness go all out to reach the final eight. It will not be the foregone conclusion many think it will but I expect Donegal to have one last kick in them this season.
Meath vs Tyrone (Croke Park, Saturday 19:00)
Meath and Tyrone have faced off only twice before in championship action. The Royals coming out on top on both occasions in 1996 and 2007. However, Tyrone are three time All-Ireland champions in the last ten years and still have the players capable of having a huge say in where Sam Maguire winters this year.
Mick O'Dowd's side were given no hope against Dublin in their Leinster final but for a full hour they threw everything they had at the capital side before being killed off by a sucker punch goal towards the end of the game. Meath proved that they do not need to rely wholly on Graham O'Reilly for a performance in their forward line. Stephen Bray, but for some stupid shot choices, and Mickey Newman put in a fantastic shift the last day out while Mickey Burke brought some much needed stability to the center of defence.
Tyrone have had an up and down run through the qualifiers. Phenomenal against Offaly, very lucky to get past Roscommon and they found the ability to dig deep and overcome a dogged Kildare side in Newbridge. It is still not clear if the Tyrone that was so bad against Donegal is the real side or if the one that appeared against Offaly is. My belief is that they are somewhere in the middle. Stephen O'Neill returned against Kildare, although he can consider himself lucky to have seen out the 70 minutes, while Darren McCurry and Sean Kavanagh have brought their good league form through to the championship.
Tyrone can consider themselves lucky to be in the final round of qualifiers having been handed victory by both Roscommon and Kildare who were unable to take their chances to kill of the Red Hand county. Meath, however, can consider themselves unlucky to be here. A fantastic performance against Dublin deserved much more than the seven point defeat they received and Mick O'Dowd is in the middle of a rebuilding project in the Royal county. Monaghan showed against Donegal this year, and Down against Kerry in 2010, that if you have a good record against a county then there is no reason to fear the opposition. Meath will believe that it is their right to beat Tyrone and I believe they can do so this weekend.