Donegal have won 10 of their 11 Championship matches in the last two seasons.
The game they lost was against Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final last year. Since that defeat, most teams with reasonable aspirations of beating Donegal have tried to modify their game in various ways.
When Dublin beat them, they mirrored the Donegal style. They sat back deep and did not commit too many bodies to the attack. Alright, it wasn't quite as extreme or hardcore as the Donegal edition, but it was a radical departure from the norm. After 23 minutes, the scoreboard read Donegal 0-1, Dublin 0-1.
Has that game provided a template of how to beat Donegal? In making our comparisons, we should rule out league form. While the overall formlines of a team in the league is a decent barometer of their ambition and where they are striking for in the Championship, too many outliers influence the outcome of early fixtures in the National League. That's why Down can beat Donegal in February, but yet when they met in the Ulster final of July, the final result was never in doubt.
Taking this years' Championship campaign, we can make several significant notes of Donegal. When they played the preliminary round against Cavan, Terry Hyland named usually de
fensive players such as Robert Maloney-Derham in the wing-forward berths for example. The ploy didn't work, but that was down to the callowness of the youthful Cavan side.
When they serviced full-forward Eugene Keating, he grabbed five points from play. That's something Donegal have guarded against since. While Neil McGee had his midfield directly in front of him against Cavan, now Mark McHugh is permanently under the dropping ball, drifting back even further from his previous position between centre and full backs.
Tyrone never tried enough ball in, instead they sniped around the edges. Martin Penrose had a shot saved magnificently by Paul Durcan, and Mark Donnelly should have finished a goal chance in the first half that Joe McMahon carved from granite. But Tyrone gave a nod to the Donegal tactics by lining out in a similar way.
Down tried high, fast ball into Benny Coulter in the Ulster final. It earned a couple of scores and an early booking for McGee. Yet strangely, Down abandoned this ploy entirely as they drifted into the suicidal habit of carrying the ball into contact.
There is a belief that Cork’s main tactic has been to bludgeon opponents and soften them up. A sort of a rope-a-dope for Gaelic football.
Donegal have also been compared in this way, being what Brendan Devenney described during the halftime break against Kerry as a “second half team.”
We will see just who is the second half team on Sunday, but if 'to beat Donegal', becomes a case of having 'to be like Donegal', then we suspect that Cork might be coming to the defensive party a little late.