With the provincial finals getting under way last Sunday, the thriller between Cork and Kerry signalled the beginning of the quest to claim a coveted place in the last 8. But are we any closer to finding out who will occupy the craved position of playing Championship football beyond July?
The Football Championship is slowly creeping towards its most crucial period on the Bank Holiday weekend in August when the All-Ireland Quarter Finals will kick-off. Reaching the All-Ireland series is seen as the bare requirement for some of the top sides across the country, but for others it represents a respectable checkpoint of being among the best teams in the country.
Prior to last Sunday’s Munster Final, Cork were believed to be somewhat of an unknown proposition due to their indifferent form over the last couple of seasons. After Kerry demolished them by 12 points in the 2014 Munster final, it looked as if the Rebels had been set back in their progress.
But their performance last Sunday proved to the national public that the players were willing to fight for their manager Brian Cuthbert in the face of heavy criticism. With fresh blood such as Barry O’Driscoll blended with the experience and class of Donncha O’Connor and Colm O’Neill up front, Cork will feel they can certainly make the last 8 at the very least.
A victory over Kerry in the replay on Saturday week would be the preferred route for Cuthbert’s men, but the Kingdom will enter the replay as favourites. Eamonn Fitzmaurice will feel his side can learn more from the game after an average performance by their very high standards. Both squads will be determined to take the direct route to GAA Headquarters next month, but whatever the result the two Munster giants will fancy their chances of making it to the quarters.
The Leinster final takes place this Sunday with silverware and another last 8 position up for grabs. Dublin enter the final as overwhelming favourites as they go in search of their 10th Leinster title in 11 years.
Westmeath though will be buoyed by their incredible comeback win against rivals Meath. They will feel they can test Jim Gavin’s men after 3 championships wins on the trot.
But Dublin’s embarrassment of riches, in their forward-line particularly, means that that their dominance of the province looks inevitable to continue. The bookies have even given Westmeath a 15 point head start in what looks likely to be one-sided affair.
The All-Ireland favourites appear to be a certainty for one of the quarter-final slots. Westmeath’s presence there seems less clear-cut as they will most likely enter the last round of qualifiers hoping for a favourable draw.
Donegal and Monaghan face off in the Ulster final for the third year in-a-row emphasising their dominance of the province. Like Cork and Kerry, both sides will be determined to take the direct route into the last 8.
The murky waters of round 4 of the qualifiers can be dangerous for any losing provincial side that will face a team who has built up momentum of at least two victories in-a-row. Despite this, both sides will feel they have the capacity to make it back to the quarter-finals.
Donegal have been efficient in their displays so far and look to have a little bit to extra to see-off the Farney men. Malachy O’Rourke though will be determined to get his side to the quarter-finals to expel any demons remaining after last year’s demolition at the hands of Dublin.
Sligo are the surprise package in the West after they defeated a highly fancied Roscommon side. They face a Mayo team who will go to the well one more time in search of that elusive All-Ireland title. They will hope the fresh voices of Noel Connelly and Pat Holmes can inspire them to a first Sam Maguire since 1951.
They will be confident of sealing a 5th Connacht title in-a-row against the Yeats men and making it back to the Croke Park, but they will need to provide the answers to the questions of the last couple of Championships from there on.
Sligo will be aiming for the quarter-finals, even with a loss in the provincial final. But teams coming through in the qualifiers would be confident of inflicting 2 defeats in succession on the Yeats men.
Elsewhere in the qualifiers, Roscommon look to have got back on track after their impressive away victory over Cavan. They will be determined to make the last 8 after the disappointing defeat to Sligo in the provincial series.
Kildare will fancy their chances to build up a run after they ejected the Dublin hammering from their system. The Lillywhites are also on the favourable side of the draw, facing Longford next.
Tyrone will also be confident of reaching the quarter-finals after they earlier pushed Donegal to the pin of their collar in the first round of Ulster. They face a deflated Meath side this Saturday in Omagh and will feel a win against the Royals will give them the impetus to test any team.
Armagh and Galway also face off in the Morgan Athletic Grounds this weekend in an intriguing tie. Whichever side comes out on top will be optimistic of going on a run. Tipperary will look to build on their recent development and defeat Louth in Semple Stadium this Saturday as their young team will look to make progress on last year.
Prediction of Teams to make it to the All-Ireland Football Quarter-Finals;
Munster Champions: Kerry
Leinster Champions: Dublin
Ulster Champions: Donegal
Connacht Champions: Mayo
Teams from Qualifiers: Cork, Monaghan, Tyrone, Roscommon