Tyrone ready to join elite as surge to Sam takes big step up
When Tyrone manager Mickey Harte declared, amid considerable speculation in relation to the Super 8s before the start of the Championship season, that "the cream will always come to the top", even he could not have contemplated the chasm that currently tends to separate teams.
While Harte continues his preparations for Saturday's All-Ireland Round Three qualifier against Cavan, which has now been re-fixed for Brewster Park, Enniskillen (5.00pm), GAA chiefs are confronted by an acute imbalance in quality among sides that is leading to disenchantment and to some extent apathy.
It was bad enough that Donegal should have beaten Fermanagh by 12 points, Kerry bettered Cork by 17 points and Dublin romped home against Laois by 18 points in the three provincial finals played at the weekend, but when Monaghan's 27-point win over Waterford and Tyrone's 10-point eclipse of Carlow in the qualifiers are taken into account, it underlines that mismatches were the order of the day.
Red Hands boss Harte has always insisted that, no matter what formula is adopted in relation to the Sam Maguire series, the most consistent sides will invariably come to the fore in the concluding stages.
"I maintain the cream will always come to the top and there is plenty of evidence to prove this even at this stage of the Championship," insists the triple All-Ireland winning manager.
"Obviously we have not reached the Super 8s stage yet and that's when the spotlight will really fall on just how teams perform," adds Harte.
His own side, having got back on the rails against Carlow, now confront a Cavan outfit that is still uncertain about the availability of their skipper Dara McVeety and centre-half-back Conor Moynagh, both of whom were shown red cards by Meath referee Cormac Reilly when tempers became heated in the immediate aftermath of the Breffni side's 1-14 to 0-15 qualifier victory over Down at Brewster Park on Saturday.
Should appeals which both players are understood to have launched against their sanctions fail, then Cavan manager Mattie McGleenan, who formerly played for Tyrone, will be forced to amend his side for what is expected to be a very difficult test.
While Cavan were extremely fortunate to pip Down in a tense finish, Tyrone glided to their comfortable 3-14 to 1-10 win over Carlow, and since then skipper Mattie Donnelly has underlined that they are relishing their confrontation with the Breffni men.
"Obviously things are getting tight now, especially in the prevailing heat and with matches coming thick and fast," states Donnelly. "I'd be confident we have the stuff in the bank to withstand that.
"We'll approach this game against Cavan in the exact same way as we approached the Carlow tie and we are focusing strongly on just how we can set up against them and counteract them.
"That's going to be the approach for this third round, and really that's as far as we are looking."
With Kerry, Donegal, Galway and Dublin all through to the Super 8s, four more places are up for grabs, and Tyrone plan to make a strong pitch for one of those.
Manager Harte is certainly hopeful that his side will enjoy an extended season now that they have put that disappointing defeat to Monaghan in the Ulster Championship behind them.
"I would love an extended run rather than sitting from now until January to play football again," smiles Harte. "It's a privilege to be in this place and I hope that we continue playing week on week for as long as this season goes on.
"As I have previously indicated, I feel the cream will come to the top and we would like to be up there along with it."
And while Harte relishes the prospect of rubbing shoulders with football's aristocracy, his Armagh counterpart Kieran McGeeney is relieved that his side will have home advantage against Clare on Saturday.
Armagh have won against Westmeath and Sligo in away ties so far and McGeeney believes that playing at the Athletic Grounds will offer his side some comfort against a Clare team that played in Division Two this year.
With skipper Rory Grugan back to his best form - he scored 1-5 in the win over Sligo - Armagh now possess a more experienced edge, but McGeeney is treading cautiously.
Clare suffered a heavy defeat to Kerry in the Munster Championship but re-ignited their summer by beating Offaly.
Armagh are expected to still be without Stephen Sheridan, Ethan Rafferty and Paul Hughes, although McGeeney would appear to have rather more selection options at his disposal.
Meanwhile, Monaghan boss Malachy O'Rourke gave a number of untried players game time in his team's facile 5-21 to 0-9 win over Waterford last week-end, although he is now likely to lean rather more on his experienced cast for Saturday's qualifier against buoyant Leitrim.