Like the rest of you, I’m still scratching my head a bit about the team we’ve selected for our opening match in this year’s championship. The fact that it’s on so early in May against New York, of course, adds an air of unreality to the selection and it’s tempting to view the event as a kind of glorified challenge match rather than a Connacht championship tie and to look at the team we’re sending out at Gaelic Park in the same light.
There’s no denying that Sunday’s match can’t be seen as equivalent to other possible provincial championship openers. The whole thing is more about the now well-established annual ritual of New York hosting a county team from the Ould Sod on this weekend every year than it is about how competitive the contest is. Past records show clearly that, Galway’s scare aside a few years back, competition has rarely come into it.
This means that James Horan and his selectors had a fair bit of latitude in picking their team for Sunday. A relevant question in this regard is whether or not the team they did pick is one that takes account of this elbow-room or if instead it’s an indication of the type of line-up we’re likely to see over the course of the championship campaign.
The first thing to consider is how the selection has been affected by injuries. Ger Cafferkey still hasn’t recovered from the quad muscle problem that forced him off before half-time in the Derry game and so Kevin Keane’s inclusion at full-back represents a straight swap. A case could have been made for Shane McHale to have stepped in instead but Sunday represents a good opportunity for Kevin – who has played almost all of his senior football in the corner but operated with distinction at full-back as a minor – to have a proper run-out in the position.
Injuries, this time players recovering from knocks, explain two more of the changes from the team that started against Derry. Tom Cunniffe and Cillian O’Connor are both well established first fifteen men but both missed the League semi-final through injury and so it’s no surprise to see both of them named to start on Sunday. Their inclusion does, though, mean that James has, in effect, passed up on the chance to blood both Brendan Harrison and Mikie Sweeney at championship level.
This suggests that Sunday’s selection maybe shouldn’t be viewed as an experimental one at all. A quick look back at championship selections in previous years under James Horan tends to bear this out. If we compare the teams selected to start in our opening championship match each year with that fielded in our final match in the same campaign, then it may be seen that in the past two years there’s been very little change between the two sets of selections. In both 2012 and again in 2013, twelve of the team sent out in our first championship match of the year were still there in the final one (not always in the same positions but still on the team). Indeed, this pattern of limited, incremental change (some of it enforced) has been one of the most notable features in our team selections over the past two years.
The same isn’t true when 2011 is included - only seven of the team that started in Ruislip were still there for the All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry that August. Given that the first match that year was, like this year, away to one of the Exile counties, an argument may be made that that 2011 resembles this one in terms of first round room for experimentation.
I’m not so sure about this. That 2011 match in Ruislip damn near resulted in a humiliating defeat and it’s little wonder that over half the team had been swopped out by the time we pitched up against the Kerrymen when we eventually made it to the All-Ireland semi-final. Indeed, six of the eight changes were made for the following round against Galway, with only two further changes from that team in the one named to start against Kerry later that summer. The Ruislip selection therefore looks like a statistical outlier and the fact that it had near-disastrous consequences suggests that it’s not an experiment James would be likely to repeat, regardless of the opposition.
So what are we to make of the rest of the selection for Sunday? Returning Keith to the corner has been almost universally welcomed and rightly so. I’m still a bit surprised this has happened now, as I felt that persevering with the tactic of having him in the forwards was one for summer but maybe it’s a safety first approach. The full-back line definitely looks more secure as a result.
The half-back line is the same as it was in the League semi-final, with the switching of Colm Boyle and Donal Vaughan now apparently permanent. You’d have to say that makes sense. Midfield is the same too – no surprise there either and great to see Jason Gibbons starting a championship match once more.
The half-forward line is where the surprise selections have been unveiled. Diarmuid O’Connor has no greater claims to a championship start than the likes of Adam Gallagher or Mikie Sweeney but he’s an intelligent footballer and his inclusion marks the creation of a welcome link between the senior team and last year’s victorious minor team. If he starts to motor there, the younger O’Connor could well be in the team for the long haul.
Sheamie’s selection at centre-forward is more of a puzzle. He’s played there before but not with any great success and those of an uncharitable disposition might claim that swapping out Keith and putting Sheamie into the half-forward line involves replacing the rapier with the battering ram. Maybe he’ll operate alongside Aidan in midfield with Jason pushing forward, maybe it’s a horses-for-courses approach to counteract the big-men-in-the-middle policy of the Yanks. Sunday should tell us more.
Kevin McLoughlin surely won’t remain as an orthodox corner-forward and will roam further out, leaving Andy and Cillian inside. I don’t know for sure but you’d have to think that Alan Freeman is out due to injury, as it makes no sense not to start with our leading scorer in the League at full-forward. Once again, though, it looks as if we’ll have to wait till Sunday to find out more on this.
Overall, then, there are more than a few questions about the team picked to play on Sunday but, to be honest, I think that may have been true regardless of what team we put out. Those lucky enough to be there at Gaelic Park for this novel fixture will be best placed to pronounce judgment on how this selection fares and no doubt there’ll be plenty of discussion here and elsewhere after the match on this very point.