The balance of power has shifted significantly in gaelic football within the past two years. For the ten years up until 2010, Tyrone, Kerry and Armagh had been the dominant teams both in taking delivery of the All-Ireland title and in providing the blueprint for how the game should be played.
Not everyone might have enthusiastically bought in to a concept that had considerable emphasis on defence but the level of success attained by these three sides, provided ample proof that they were doing everything right.
Fast forward to this year and formal confirmation has now been delivered that Cork, Donegal and to a somewhat lesser extent Dublin are the new ‘big three’, the team who are establishing a fresh template in terms of strategy and tactics.
If we thought that Tyrone’s blanket defence earlier in the decade proved an uncompromising barrier to free-flowing football, then this paled into insignificance when compared to the water-tight system favoured by Donegal last year in winning their first Ulster title in eighteen years.
This year, Donegal boss Jim McGuinness has relented somewhat and allowed his players to express themselves more freely while at the same time adhering to the defensive rigidity that’s now their trademark.
Once again their formula has been proved successful and the Ulster champions will now go into an All-Ireland semi-final against Cork imbued with even further belief.
Collectively they are a strong force and on an individual front players like Mark McHugh, Frank McGlynn, Ryan Bradley, Karl Lacey and of course ace marksman Colm McFadden have already left an indelible imprint on the Championship landscape.
Skipper Michael Murphy is not quite as authoritative as he was last year but he nonetheless forms a dynamic twin spearhead along with the wily McFadden and this duo could make life difficult for a Cork defence that might be forced to concede yellow cards — and that could prove perilous.
Cork themselves have shown admirable staying power. They had to exercise considerable patience in their wait for ‘Sam’ but since beating Down in the 2010 All-Ireland final Conor Counihan’s side have remained on a roll. They are now in pursuit of a hat-trick of trophies this year having already won the Allianz League title and the Munster crown.
The team is an amalgam of power, skill and sublime finishing that has secured entry to the last four and emphasised just what a huge part athleticism, physical authority and searing pace play in terms of securing success in the modern game.
It is no great surprise to see Cork installed as favourites to take delivery of ‘Sam’ although I feel that Donegal will take them to the wire in the semi-final in what looks like being a fascinating tie given the contrasting styles of the two teams.
Cork favour a running game, the cornerstone of which is to ply Colm O’Neill, Donnacha O’Connor and Paul Kerrigan with the ball and let them do the rest.
The team’s overall work-rate, resilience and particularly the strength on their bench where they have some big-name players will test Donegal to the full.
Unlike Donegal and Cork, Dublin are playing like a team that is operating on only three cylinders.
Bernard Brogan is not the force he was, his brother Alan is an injury doubt for the semi-final against Mayo, the centre of their defence looks vulnerable and players such as Diarmuid Connolly, Eoghan O’Gara, Denis Bastick and Bryan Cullen tend to blow hot and cold.
I hope that Dublin manager Pat Gilroy will have his homework done for the game against Mayo because his side are going to face a big test against the Connacht champions.
Manager James Horan has Mayo at concert pitch, a side ravenous for action and anxious to consign the bad times that teams from the county have endured at HQ in the past into the history books.
Mayo have added steel to their play and they also have options up front which means that competition for places has stiffened up considerably.
Yet the jury is still out. They may have roared to a comprehensive victory over Down but the paucity of the opposition they encountered must be taken into account when assessing their title prospects.
If they overcome Dublin this would help to fashion a fresh attitude towards them.
The fact that Mayo will be without injured captain Andy Moran for the semi-final because of a serious is a huge blow as he is the fulcrum of their attack. However I fancy Horan will still come up with a forward line permutation that will cause problems for a Dublin defence that has been far from convincing of late.