Gah Season Starts Here!
The keener eyed of readers will have noticed that, despite the hurling and football National Leagues having been running for the past couple of months, they have received scarcely a nod or passing comment in these parts. This is not a sin of omission, however. Rather, to these eyes, the National Leagues are glorified pre-season tournaments, half-throttle (events in Omagh excepted) dress rehearsals for the Broadway run of the summer. Not that they aren't approached seriously by the county panels involved, but there is undoubtedly a sense of boot camp about the competitions, wherein any failures or problems are excused by the hope that they will be rectified by the summer.
That said, the arrival of the knock-out stages in the Leagues brings the promise of silverware, and the knowledge that the white heat of the Championship lies just over the horizon. So which teams are freewheeling toward the summer and which sides are at the side of the road with a puncture?
Looking Good: Mayo, Laois, Galway
In a league without an outstanding team and in which many hardy perennials stubbornly refused to bloom, Mayo had the most fulfilling campaign. Inter-county management's wandering minstrels, Mickey Moran and John Morrison, have received plaudits for how quickly Mayo have settled and the level their players have reached - even without Ciaran McDonald. Battled for a point against Tyrone to secure qualification for the semis, and theirs was a strong division to top.
Laois continued to be the aesthetes of football, their free-flowing style brightening up many a chilly county ground over recent Sundays. Got a bit of a rattle by a physical Kildare last Sunday, just when defeating the Ulster triumvirate of Armagh, Derry and Down over previous weeks might have convinced them they had the weapons to handle brawnier opponents.
Galway are the form side it seems; after a slow start, they won their last four games in a row, putting up hefty scores in the process - the return of the Salthill-Knocknacarra lads putting some timely pep in their step.
Nothing Special, But You Know They'll Be There in the Summer: Kerry, Tyrone
Kerry may have qualified for the semis but defeats to Monaghan and Tyrone and a draw with a similarly inconsistent Dublin means it wasn't a stellar league for the kingdom. Tyrone missed out on the semi-finals for the first time in five seasons, albeit they were in the tougher of the divisions. Both sides will, of course, be the teams to beat in the summer, but although Tyrone only missed out on points difference, they will be mindful of how they've liked maintain standards in League and Championship in previous years, and will hope that this rare failure to qualify won't spell a lasting drop in those levels.
Lot of Work To Do: Dublin, Armagh
The Dubs just couldn't get into their stride. Thought they'd laid down a marker by beating Tyrone, then lost to relegated Monaghan; disposed comfortably of Offaly, then edged out by Cork; beaten by Fermanagh then went on to drub table-toppers Mayo. However, Pillar Caffrey tried a lot of new players and will no doubt think of the league as a laboratory for the future months.
Armagh could easily have been relegated, had Meath not shipped four goals at Galway, and while none will write them off, like Tyrone they have prided themselves on greedily competing for silverware of any kind. Is it getting too hard to rouse themselves for the chilly spring Sundays?
Honourable Mentions: Donegal, Limerick, Louth
Donegal did as expected, Limerick lived up to potential, but it was Louth who provided the fairytale of the league in winning promotion to Division One.
Looking Good: Kilkenny, Clare, Limerick
How determined are the Cats going to be this season? Skipped through the league campaign handily enough, the highlight being a comfortable defeat of their 2005 conquerors Galway - and even more reassuring the fact that they condeded only 0-10 against the Westerners, as opposed to 5-18 in the aforementioned All-Ireland semi.
Clare, whilst never dazzling and probably overrelying on Niall Gilligan for scores, will be delighted with the scalps of Cork and Waterford with the Munster Championship in mind, and will enjoy the opportunity of a run-out at Semple Stadium, a ground they are often said to have problems with.
For Limerick it's all about muscling their way up amongst the leading contenders and at last starting to fulfil the promise of their consecutive U-21 All-Irelands at the beginning of the decade. With that in mind, defeating Galway and drawing with Kilkenny and Waterford are a step in the right direction.
Nothing Special, But You Know They'll Be There in the Summer: Cork, Waterford
Inconsistent, and in Waterford's case at times woeful, the recent pedigree in Munster remains with these two - and in the case of Cork, only a fool wouldn't believe that the prize which their eyes are on is in Septmeber, in the form of the fabled three-in-a-row.
Lot of Work To Do: Tipperary, Galway
Dark times in Tipperary, with a draw with Limerick being the summit of their league achievements. Cue public berating of his panel by Babs Keating and much soul-searching about Tipp lads having to put in too many hours on the farm to cope with the demands of the modern game. Overreliance on Eoin Kelly only the beginning of their problems.
Galway also had a dire league, the defeat to Antrim being the nadir. However, they have a bright shining light in the form of Portumna's Joe Canning, the 17-year old who almost singlehandedly won his club the All-Ireland title on St.Patrick's Day. The temptation to promote him up the ranks will be huge for Conor Hayes.
Honourable Mention: Offaly
In the quarter-finals, and will be delighted with the rout of Waterford; however, how interested the Deise were last Sunday is open to question.