So, the defeat to Galway is slipping away into the background, with the consequences of that loss and the road it has sent us on in this year’s championship now beginning to stare us in the face. I know others have already detailed some of this but I thought it would be worthwhile to set down in full what is known about the route that’s facing us as we prepare to embark on another run at the qualifiers.
The first – and perhaps most obvious – point is that we’re now, by virtue of the loss to Galway, in knockout territory in this year’s championship. This summer is, of course, different in that should we, once again, reach the All-Ireland Series, we’ll be guaranteed three Super Eight matches. But to reach that point we have first to negotiate our way through four knockout ties. A slip-up in any of these and our year’s football at senior inter-county level is over.
The fun starts next Monday morning. The line-up for Round 1 will, barring draws after extra-time, have been completed the previous day and the Round 1 draw will be broadcast live that morning on Morning Ireland on RTÉ Radio 1 after the 8.30am news bulletin.
Sixteen teams will be in the hat for the Round 1 draw. This year there’s no A and B sides to the qualifiers – instead, it’s an open draw, with no restrictions. The counties in the draw will be the following:
So, a few obvious ones we’d want to avoid there. Tyrone, in particular, are a county we’d like to steer clear of and, to be honest, we’d do well to keep away from anyone else from Ulster in this opening round.
One welcome aspect about this year’s opening round draw is that we get a bit of time – a full thirteen days – to get ready for whomever we’re paired with. Usually, this period is less than a week – and that’ll be the case too for counties involved in subsequent rounds this summer – but, to start with, everyone in Round 1 gets a decent interval to plan for the knockout tie facing them.
Teams in Divisions Three and Four of the NFL will, for all ties in Rounds 1, 2 and 3, enjoy home advantage. Seeing as the bulk of those in the draw will fall into this category there is, then, a better than even chance we’ll be drawn away from home in the opening round.
The Round 1 matches will all be played on Saturday 9th June. Should we make it past this tricky first hurdle, Round 2 is scheduled to be played two weeks later, i.e. on Saturday 23rd June.
For the Round 2 draw, the eight survivors from Round 1 will be pitted against the eight losing provincial semi-finalists. Once more, any counties from within this cohort operating out of the bottom two League Divisions (and there will be a few) will enjoy home advantage in Round 2.
Round 3 takes place a week after Round 2, i.e. on 30th June. The draw for this round is another open one, involving the eight Round 2 winners. Obviously, the dangers of bagging a beast in this one – once again, Tyrone being the obvious example – are greater. Although this draw is an open one, repeat pairings are ruled out if they can be avoided (say, if it would mean the likes of Cavan and Donegal meeting again, having already done so in Ulster).
As an aside, it’s worth noting here the impact of the more compact championship season. Should we still be standing after Round 3, it’ll still only be the end of June, a point in the year when, of late, we’re only starting to get the lugs pinned back properly. This underlines still further the need for us to come out of the blocks fast in this qualifier campaign.
Round 4 is set for a week after Round 3, so these matches will be played on Saturday or Sunday 7th/8th July. Unlike the earlier rounds, Round 4 qualifier ties are played at neutral venues, frequently – though not always – at Croke Park.
The Round 4 draw pits the four survivors from Round 3 against the four beaten provincial finalists. As with Round 3, repeat pairings will be avoided where possible so if Galway tank again against the Rossies we won’t – if we’re still standing – be granted the pleasure of their company then.
This draw serves two purposes. First it determines the Round 4 pairings but it also sorts out which group a qualifier potentially ends up in at the Super Eight stage (see below).
The four winners of Round 4 enter the All-Ireland Quarter-Final Group Stage, aka the Super Eights. This will comprise two Groups, which, in 2018, will be filled in the following way:
- Group 1: Munster champions, Connacht champions, Ulster beaten finalist/qualifier, Leinster beaten finalist/qualifier
- Group 2: Leinster champions, Ulster champions, Munster beaten finalist/qualifier, Connacht beaten finalist/qualifier
The Super Eights start the weekend after Round 4 of the qualifiers and will be played over what the GAA terms “phases”, which is just another way of saying rounds.
The Phase 1 games, played on the weekend of 14th/15th July, involve the two provincial champions in each group playing each other (in old money these would be All-Ireland quarter-final ties) and the two Round 4 qualifier counties doing likewise.
The Phase 2 games are played the following weekend (21st/22nd July) and then there’s a fortnight gap to the Phase 3 matches (on 4th/5th August). Both of these phases involve the Round 4 qualifier teams taking on the provincial champions in their respective groups.
The top two counties from each group in the Super Eights qualify for the All-Ireland semi-final. The winner of Group 1 is paired with the runner-up in Group 2 and vice versa. The All-Ireland semi-finals are down for decision on 11th and 12th August.
There’s then a three-week gap to the final, which is set to be played on Sunday, 2nd September.
That, then, is the road potentially facing us in this year’s championship. How far along that road we travel is down to us, how we perform and whether or not our performances are good enough to keep us involved as the story of this year’s championship unfolds.
The Mayo GAA Lotto is a practical way of showing your support for the team as they embark on this road. You can play the Lotto here.