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GAA: the inside track on big game

By John Campbell

We tackle all the battles in the Championship opener both on and off the field

Tyrone v Down Ulster SFC Preliminary Healy Park (Sun 4.00pm)

Conor Clarke v Ambrose Rogers

This will be a contest between two players who have had only a limited diet of top-flight action recently and could prove a survival of the fittest.

Clarke, having impressed in the past at full-back, is now seen as a midfield force and will be expected to exert his influence over Rogers, a former Down skipper who when at full tilt is an imposing competitor.

Clarke's uncompromising approach and desire to push forward could see him make a decisive impact but he lacks the experience and guile which Rogers brings to the table. The Down man may not have been in the spotlight recently but he has the knack of coming good on big occasions as he has shown on numerous occasions in the past even when his team were not performing well. He will be expected to provide the ammunition for Benny Coulter and co to shoot down their hosts and he is more than capable of doing that but it won't be easy.

Darren McCurry v Rory Boyle

Since coming into the side, McCurry's skilful finishing has marked him down as a player of real quality. Confident and enterprising on the ball, he is unafraid to shoot from distance and can make even half-chances count. He showed during the league that he has the pace and agility to elude defenders, coming off his marker regularly to pick off points.

In Boyle, he will face a player who has improved since his introduction to the Down rearguard. Not only does he perform his defensive duties well but he is proficient at breaking forward into enemy territory. He revels in the cut and thrust of close exchanges yet always seems to find space in which to use possession to best effect. He has turned in some fine performances but tomorrow will represent a big test of his character.

Matthew Donnelly v Mark Poland

Donnelly  is listed at centre-half-back which suggests that he will lock horns with Poland and if this proves to be the case then he will have his hands full. Up until quite recently Donnelly was deployed in the Tyrone attack and now he will be expected to help shore up a defence that has been leaking too many goals in particular lately for manager Mickey Harte's liking. Donnelly, though, will require plenty of cover on this occasion if he is to prove a curbing influence.

Poland is the fulcrum of the Down side, a player who is invariably at the heart of virtually every attacking move. He has certainly embraced his role of skipper with gusto and provides the kind of dynamic leadership that the team had been lacking. Not only is he an astute playmaker whose subtle distribution underpins his team's strategy but he is also a proficient scorer as his two late goals against Armagh in the league will testify. If the play is channelled through him tomorrow to the extent that James McCartan hopes it will be then Down could flourish.

Team tactics - Tyrone

The inclusion of the gangling Niall McKenna at full-forward would suggest that Tyrone will embrace a route one policy although this could turn out to be a decoy ploy. Certainly, McKenna has the ability to win ball and perhaps feed Kyle Coney and Darren McCurry who can then provide the scoring thrust.

Sean Cavanagh is named at centre-half-forward but could be deployed in the middle third of the park while Ciaran McGinley is also likely to drop back and launch counter-attacks from deep. Mattie Donnelly and Peter Harte will both have key roles not just in defence but as complementary forwards.

Manager Harte has been less than impressed with his defence given the number of goals they have conceded and in this respect he will want to ensure that both Benny Coulter and Donal O'Hare are policed effectively which could mean major roles for Aidan McCrory and Barry Tierney in a Red Hands full-back line that has struggled.

Team tactics - Down

Manager James McCartan is certain to seek a much more direct approach from his side.

In recent games his players have been guilty of too much lateral and indeed over-elaborate passing that have tended to play into the hands of their opponents. With proven score-getters such as Benny Coulter and Donal O'Hare in their inside forward line, the Mourne outfield players have every incentive to deliver the ball in quickly conscious that this duo can then deploy their finishing ability.

Kevin McKernan's work-rate will play a big part in the team's strategy while skipper Mark Poland will pull the strings in attack just as he has been doing all year only this time he will have to contend with some claustrophobic marking.

How he responds to this will determine Down's overall display while Peter Turley's input in the middle and in attack will be vital. Down know that if Tyrone concede even one goal they could become more vulnerable.

The numbers game...

20: Two decades have elapsed since Down last won the Ulster senior football championship.

Boss James McCartan was a member of the all-conquering 1994 side that lifted the provincial accolade before going on to win the All-Ireland title for a fifth time.

The lengthy title famine is a huge source of embarrassment within this proud football county.

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