crunch time | 

The complete idiot’s guide to the race for Sam Maguire as favourites emerges

It will be all over in a flash and then we will be wondering how to keep ourselves occupied for the rest of the year.

Tyrone's Peter Harte, holding daughter Ava, and Darragh Canavan lift the Sam Maguire Cup in Croke Park last year.

Sean McGoldrick

One wonders has it dawned yet on casual GAA fans how different the All-Ireland championship is this summer.

Covid-19 wreaked havoc on the time-table for the country’s premier sporting competition in 2020 and 2021 so being different has become almost the norm.

Still, we can all imagine when the All-Ireland finals roll around in mid-July they will be greeted with a degree of surprise.

Just how profoundly different the schedule is compared to the last ‘normal’ season in 2019 is that three years ago the provincial football championships were just kicking off in late May. Now they are down to the last two in each province.

The other fundamental change is the two-tier system. The 16 bottom ranked counties compete in the Tailteann Cup, while the top 16 go head-to-head for the Sam Maguire Cup.

Last week we dealt at length with the nuts and bolts of the Tailteann Cup.

Today we will focus on the All-Ireland series

Eight of the 16 contenders have qualified by virtue of reaching their provincial finals: Donegal and Derry in Ulster; Dublin and Kildare in Leinster; Galway and Roscommon in Connacht and Kerry and Limerick in Munster.

With the exception of Ulster - which has a new pairing - it is mostly a case of ‘same old, same old’ in the other provinces. And given that Donegal featured in every Ulster final bar two (2017 and 2021) since 2011 it is hardly a surprise they’re in the frame again.

The Leinster decider is a repeat of last year’s, while Kerry and Galway contested their respective finals last season as well. Limerick are appearing in their first provincial decider since 2010, while Derry are back in the Ulster showdown for the first time since losing to Donegal in 2011.

The Munster and Leinster finals are scheduled for next Saturday with the Connacht and Ulster deciders going ahead 24 hours later.

The winners advance directly to the All-Ireland quarter-finals; the losers await their fate in Round 2 of the All-Ireland qualifiers which are scheduled for the second weekend in June.

The other teams left in the hunt for the Sam Maguire are Armagh, Monaghan, Tyrone, Meath, Cork, Mayo, Louth and Clare. Though they all failed to reach their respective provincial finals, they are in the All-Ireland because they will play in either Division 1 or 2 of the Allianz League next season.

The eight teams go into the hat for Monday’s opening round qualifier draw which will take place on Morning Ireland. It is a straight-forward open draw with the first team out having home advantage.

All eyes will be on the fate of last year’s All-Ireland finalists Tyrone and Mayo, who could be drawn to drawn to meet each other in a winner-takes-all tie on the first weekend in June.

In Round 2 of the All-Ireland qualifiers, the four defeated provincial finalists will be drawn to meet the four Round 1 winners. It will be an open draw with venues being determined by Croke Park.

Finally, in the All-Ireland quarter-final final draw, the four provincial champions will be drawn against the Round 2 winners.

However, repeat provincial final pairings will be avoided where possible. Venues for the quarter-finals which will be played on June 25-26 will be determined by Croke Park.

The semi-final pairings are pre-determined as follows: Leinster champions or the team that beat them v Munster champions; Ulster champions or the team that beat them v Connacht champions or the team that beat them.

The semi-finals will be played on the weekend of July 9-10. The order in which they will be played not be confirmed until the pairings are known, and the Tailteann Cup final will be played as a curtain to one of the Sam Maguire semi-finals.

The All-Ireland football final will be played on July 24. It is the only game in the championship which will go to a replay if the sides are level after extra time.

The replay, if needed, takes place on Saturday, August 6. And if the sides are level after extra time, the game will be decided on penalties.

Now that we know the mechanics the more interesting question is who will win.

Kerry are a shoo-in to beat Limerick in the Munster decider in Killarney and Dublin will be expected to win again in Leinster.

The outcome of the other two finals are more problematic. Though they were beaten by Roscommon twice this season and in their last final meeting in 2019, Galway will still be favourites to prevail on home soil in Connacht.

In keeping with the unpredictable nature of the series, the Ulster final is nearly impossible to predict. Donegal have the experience, but Derry have all the momentum - and nobody knows the strengths and weaknesses of every Donegal player better than Rory Gallagher, who used to be in charge of them.

And, it would be foolish to write off the chances of either Tyrone or Mayo, who have a proven track record of coming through the backdoor.

So, sit back and enjoy the next the eight weeks.

It will be all over in a flash and then we will be wondering how to keep ourselves occupied for the rest of the year.

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