Super 8s analysis: The best team in Connacht can shed tag of the worst to come out of it
They are Connacht champions for the second time in three years, and they've done it by winning away in Mayo and Galway. Cahair O'Kane runs the rule over Roscommon and whether they can improve on last year's Super 8s horror show…
THE best team in Connacht, yet the worst team to come out of Connacht. Is that a fair summation?
Take the first part of the statement. Since Mayo’s domination of the provincial circuit ended in 2015, Roscommon and Galway have shared the last four Connacht titles between them.
This year, they became kings of the pitch invasion in Castlebar and Salthill. The merits of the two victories fall into different camps.
Let’s be totally honest, Mayo beat themselves that night. They owned the ball, they handed Roscommon a simple goal, they had chance after chance, including a last-minute free from 20 yards, and they still managed to get beaten.
Roscommon’s part in it was creditable, in that they hung in the game and used the ball brilliantly when they had it. Conor Cox was a major source of damage, and when they got their goal chances they took them.
The final was a different affair. They struggled in the first half but once the goal gave them a foothold, they became relentless. Their physical powers are understated. Galway’s featherweight attack was there to be gobbled up, and that’s what Roscommon did in the second half.
It’s the second time they’d won the Connacht title in Salthill in the space of three years. To win two of the last three and have big wins away to both your rivals, it’s hard to argue that they aren’t the best team within the province.
What is it about Roscommon, then, that’s preventing them from taking the next step?
Their ventures on to the All-Ireland stage have been sobering. Barring the blistering first 20 minutes in Croke Park against Mayo in 2017, it’s been a disaster.
They were pegged back for a draw and then trounced in the replay. Upon recovering from losing the Connacht final last year to reach the Super 8s, they were hit for 4-24 by both Tyrone and Dublin.
Kevin McStay stepped away. Despite their promotion back to Division One, it was a test of their bouncebackability that few thought they would pass.
In a defence where there were obviously major issues, the winter seemed to condemn them. Of their starting back six, the entire full-back line of Seanie McDermott, Niall McInerney and Peter Domican stepped away, as did half-back John McManus.
Then Ciaráin Murtagh stepped away, and his brother Diarmuid was missing for the whole league, taking a huge chunk out of their attacking resource.
As such, their league campaign was roundly viewed from the angle that relegation was expected, and that they’d picked up just three points.
Perhaps it would have been fairer to look at a new manager adopting a different style with different players, yet still beating Monaghan, drawing with Tyrone in a game they should have won, and losing narrowly to Mayo before giving Dublin a rattle for 50 minutes.
Clearly that was the attitude Anthony Cunningham and his players took to review their spring, because there’s been no shortage of confidence so far this summer.
A huge degree of that comes from the acquisition of Conor Cox. Winning three Munster and All-Ireland junior titles with Kerry wasn’t enough to earn him a shot at the big time with his native Kerry, so he took his Roscommon roots and set up camp out west.
The Listowel man has come in and hit 1-40 for them, of which 0-15 has come in three championship games – exactly five points in each.
He offers that little bit more than Donie Smith had been giving them inside, and the latter has found himself frozen out. Conor Devaney has too, having played more minutes than anyone else under McStay last year.
Devaney got just 25 minutes before he was whipped off in the Connacht final, having been out of the team for the semi-final.
Cunningham’s greatest achievement has been lifting them from last year’s Super 8s horror show.
He’s done so by solidifying them defensively without selling off the attacking assets.
Gary Patterson and Evan McGrath were given chances during the league, but since the Kerry game on the final day, the former Galway hurling boss hasn’t made a single change to his back seven.
Settling on Darren O’Malley ahead of Colm Lavin in goals has offered them that bit of reliability as well that didn’t exist because of McStay’s failure to pick a number one and stick with him.
They couldn’t get any consistency into their defence at all last year and were so porous down the middle. Conor Hussey has stepped into the number six jersey and Sean Mullooly has taken over at full-back, surrounded by the trio of Dalys and the ever-dependable David Murray.
Niall Kilroy still operates as the man dropping from half-forward. They aren’t averse to putting 14 behind the ball, but it’s how effective that will be for them in Croke Park.
They’re fond of using the boot on the break but the more savvy men going in against them will perhaps leave a bit of cover back in the assumption that Roscommon’s game won’t be good enough and that they’ll try to force the kick to Cox.
Having either Tyrone or Cavan in the Hyde first up will be a huge opportunity for them. If it’s Cavan, then it’s a side that they have an inexplicably good record against over recent years, barring this spring’s league game.
Tyrone would be a tougher game but a better test of their mettle. They would dig in and avoid the fate they suffered against the Red Hands in Croke Park last year, no doubt about it. But it’s whether they’d have enough to win.
If they even squeezed a draw then it would be how close they can get to Dublin and how much they can beat Laois or Cork by on the final day.
Roscommon have some proving to do on the All-Ireland stage, but they don’t look anything like the soft touch they were 12 months ago.
Winning Connacht could come to have even greater significance if they were to use the platform of being at home in their first Super 8s game to squeeze their way out of the group.
Do not rule it out.
ANTHONY CUNNINGHAM’S BEST TEAM
2019 OVERALL TOP SCORERS
Conor Cox 1-40 (1-0pen, 0-22f)
Shane Killoran 3-5
Niall Kilroy 1-8
Diarmuid Murtagh 1-8 (0-3f)
Cathal Cregg 2-5
2019 CHAMPIONSHIP TOP SCORERS
Conor Cox 0-15 (0-6f)
Shane Killoran 2-1
Diarmuid Murtagh 1-3 (0-2f)
EVERY MINUTE MEN
Players to have played every minute of league and championship
Highest: Conor Daly (700)
SUPER 8s FIXTURES
Dr Hyde Park, July 13, 5pm: Roscommon v Tyrone/Cavan
Croke Park, July 20, 7pm: Dublin v Roscommon
Pairc Úi Chaoimh / Portlaoise, August 3/4: Cork/Laois v Roscommon