GAA

Race to avoid the Tailteann Cup: Why Down v Westmeath means more than meets the eye

The likely Ulster clash of Down v Armagh has huge ramifications in the race to avoid the Tailteann Cup, with Clare’s expected venture to a Munster final placing extra impetus on the Division 3 final this weekend.

Down's Ceilum Doherty keeps possession while under pressure from Luke Loughlin of Westmeath
Picture: Louis McNally
Down's Ceilum Doherty keeps possession while under pressure from Luke Loughlin of Westmeath Picture: Louis McNally

The Allianz Leagues have drawn the boot on six sides doomed to the fate of relegation. Even with the League finals yet to be played, Championship fever is sweeping in.

For Down and Westmeath, their result this weekend could dictate a whole lot more than just silverware. With nine sides (Meath and provincial finalists) guaranteed Sam Maguire football, just seven slots are decided based on League standing.

There will of course be an overlap of teams however.

Meath captain Donal Keogan celebrates with the Tailteann Cup. Picture by Philip Walsh
Qualified: Meath captain Donal Keogan celebrates with the Tailteann Cup. Picture by Philip Walsh

On paper, keeping the Championship draw in mind, the most likely provincial final pairings would be the following, if the favourites were to progress:

Derry v Armagh
Dublin v Louth
Clare v Kerry
Galway v Mayo
Champions: Derry's Odhran Lynch saves Armagh's penalty during the Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship-Final between Armagh and Derry at St. Tiarnach's Park Clones on 05 14-2023. Pic Philip Walsh

Of those eight sides, only Clare fall outside next year’s Allianz League Division One or Division Two.

Therefore, the Banner would qualify at the expense of the country’s 16th ranked league side, as all the other hypothetical finalists above are within that 16.

That 16th team just so happens to be the loser of this weekend’s Division Three final between Down and Westmeath.

That is of course just the most likely scenario, and as we know, it is no way guaranteed.

Kerry captain David Clifford lifts the Munster Cup after his side's win over Clare in Sunday's Munster SFC final at the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick    Picture: Sportsfile
Kingdom kingpins: Kerry captain David Clifford lifts the Munster Cup after his side's win over Clare in Sunday's Munster SFC final at the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick Picture: Sportsfile

However, the picture is a whole lot clearer if we assume each of the following very likely scenarios:

1) Limerick DO NOT make a Munster final, i.e. beat both Cork and Kerry.
2) Winners of Sligo v Leitrim DO NOT beat Galway.
3) Fermanagh or Antrim DO NOT make an Ulster final.
4) Dublin qualify for the Leinster final.

Essentially, it doesn’t matter who makes the Ulster final. Nothing changes unless it is Fermanagh, Antrim or Down.

Equally it doesn’t matter if Kerry beat Cork or if Roscommon get the better of Mayo. In the eyes of the law, they are straight swaps.

The issue for Down lies with the Clare v Waterford draw. Both Munster sides fall outside the top 16.

Monaghan's Ryan Wylie wins the ball as Roscommon's Daire Cregg looks on. Picture by Glenn Murphy
Relegated: Both Monaghan and Roscommon will play Sam Maguire football despite their respective relegations. Picture by Glenn Murphy

And the winner of that tie is guaranteed Sam Maguire football, turning the top 16 into a top 15 in terms of Sam Maguire qualification.

The losers of Down v Westmeath this weekend then lose out (in 16th place) and face Tailteann Cup football, unless they can make a provincial final themselves.

Assume this as the most likely scenario, using the expected provincial finalists outlined above, but again, it doesn’t actually matter if we swap in any of Cork, Roscommon, Cavan, Donegal, Monaghan or Tyrone.

We’ll use the favourites to keep it as straightforward as possible.

Championship qualification (9 sides):
Derry + Armagh - Ulster
Dublin + Louth - Leinster
Kerry + Clare - Munster
Mayo + Galway - Connacht
Meath - Tailteann Cup champions
Conor Laverty wasn't impressed by Down's performance against Meath last weekend
At the helm: Conor Laverty will be eager to win the Division 3 crown for a variety of reasons.

Our remaining seven are made up of the league’s top 16 sides, EXCLUDING the nine sides above.

League qualification:
1) Tyrone
2) Donegal
3) Roscommon
4) Monaghan
5) Cavan
6) Cork
7) Down OR Westmeath (Division Three winners)
Louth manager Ger Brennan on the line against Donegal during the National Football League match played at Fr Tierney Park in Ballyshannon on Sunday 3rd March 2024. Picture Margaret McLaughlin
New man in charge: Louth manager Ger Brennan Picture: Margaret McLaughlin (Margaret McLaughlin Photography )

The only variables look to be in the Ulster and Leinster Championship.

Clare or Waterford will contest the Munster final. Galway are red-hot favourites to play what is destined to be Roscommon or Mayo.

So we’re left with what we’ll call three star games, if we remove the prospect of major upsets that we outlined at the beginning.

Each of these three present the most likely chance of an upset that will have Tailteann Cup ramifications:

Star game A: Leinster quarter-final

Kildare v Westmeath

Star game B: Leinster semi-final

Kildare/Westmeath v Louth

Star game C: Ulster semi-final

Down v Armagh*

So let’s break it down into two scenarios, revolving around Down v Armagh.

Scenario 1: Armagh beat Down

Louth are almost guaranteed to be playing Sam Maguire football should Armagh beat Down. Even if they lose their Leinster semi-final, they would qualify on the grounds of league seeding.

In the quite possible scenario where Kildare OR Westmeath qualify for the Leinster final, the Mournemen will play Tailteann Cup football.

Kildare/Westmeath getting the better of Louth would spell bad news for Down if they fail to make the Ulster final.
If Louth don't come through their side of Leinster, Down will likely have to make an Ulster final. Down and out:

Even if Down win this weekend, they will need Louth to make the Leinster decider to avoid the drop to the Tailteann Cup. On form, these 16 teams are the most likely to be in the race for Sam (see below).

The most likely scenario based on current form.
A Leinster final appearance for Louth would free up a space for the country's 15th ranked league side, i.e. the winners of Division 3. Race for Sam:

If Down lose this weekend, their league position WILL NOT qualify them for the country’s top 16 sides and Sam Maguire football.

Down's Ceilum Doherty keeps possession while under pressure from Luke Loughlin of Westmeath
Picture: Louis McNally
Rivalry: Down's Ceilum Doherty keeps possession while under pressure from Luke Loughlin of Westmeath Picture: Louis McNally

Westmeath likewise must win the Division 3 crown and hope Louth make the Leinster final IF they do not get there themselves.

This is the only scenario in which both Westmeath and Louth can play Sam Maguire football.

Scenario 2: Down beat Armagh

The biggest loser in Down beating Armagh would ironically be Louth, the same side that Conor Laverty’s side may end up secretly supporting this summer.

In Scenario 2, a Dublin v Westmeath OR Kildare final would mean Tailteann Cup football for Louth.

Here:

Therefore, Louth’s sixth-placed finish in Division Two this year would cost them. Cork become the lowest ranked league side to enter, with only six sides qualifying based on league status.

Should Down upset Armagh, Westmeath are also impacted, with their league positioning becoming null and void.

Clare manager Colm Collins feels a shot clock might work to blot out long periods of passive possession Picture Margaret McLaughlin.
Pastures new: Former Clare manager Colm Collins was one of the longest serving intercounty managers in the game. Picture Margaret McLaughlin.

The only possible scenario in which both Down and Westmeath can qualify for the Sam Maguire is through the Championship.

If one makes a provincial final, they condemn the other to the Tailteann Cup.

All rather straightforward. Glad that’s all cleared up.