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Group 4 : O’Toole’s, Barróg, Chiaráin’s, Na Fianna

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There’s a scene from the movie “300” which may best sum up the dynamic of this group. The Persians numbering over a hundred thousand, try to confront the 300 Spartans at a narrow passage at Thermopylae. As the leaders negotiate, the Persian leader, Xerxes, suggests that the Spartans should surrender.

Their leader, Leonidas, asks one of the accompanying opposing soldiers what is his job. If memory serves me correctly, he replies that he’s a baker. He then turns to his soldiers and asks them what is their job. Battle-hardened, scar-faced war veterans beat their shields defiantly and roar. They were soldiers! Surrender was not imminent!

If we had a resident artist at Grassroots-gaa, we may well have done a caricature of young Na Fianna and Barróg hopefuls trying to pass the likes of Brendan McLoughlin and Kevin Ryan, and Stephen Chester and Damien O’Reilly!

In many regards this is the most intriguing of the four championship groups. A re-run of the trio of Craobh, O’Toole’s and Na Fianna from 2015, with Barróg added to the fray in place of Brigid’s, it represents the two dominant forces of the nineties to mid noughties, in Craobh and O’Toole’s, against what all patterns suggest should be the up and coming side, Na Fianna. Barróg will hope to spring from the long grass and make an impact.

Now, there are two key points to note here. Firstly, Na Fianna have played O’toole’s thrice and Craobh once in the last three/two championships, and have lost on all four occasions, relatively comprehensively on each occasion to O’Tooles. One of those was as recently as last October in what was essentially knock-out game.

O’toole’s reached the semi’s last year, and Craobh the quarters, so in one regard, that’s where the form is at.

However, the age dynamics of these three sides are interesting. Of O’Tooles’ eight former Dublin seniors, two hit their forties last year, three will be 35 or more this year, and another two will be 31,32 and 33 this year. All started last year’s semi-final.

Similarly, the likes of Stephen Chester, Damien O’Reilly and Eugene Farrell of Craobh’s 2006 winning team are still soldiering on, but they’re not as young as they once were, with an age dynamic, though not as extreme as O’Toole’s, not so far off it.

O’Toole’s have a handful of youngsters have come into the fold in recent years, and Craobh have a midweight Division 1 minor team from 2015 to deploy, including two year Dublin minor Conor Ryan, but filling the shoes of the likes of Paul O’Donoghue, Liam Ryan and Kevin Ryan, and Alan McCrabbe and Derek O’Rielly is no easy task.

By contrast, last year Na Fianna won the minor championship for the third year on the trot, their fourth in six years. Now, Na Fianna’s footballers are evidence that that’s no guarantee of success, but, barring some gross tactical deficiency, you should at least expect it to be put you in the top eight and probably four.

Probably more significantly, as minor championship winning sides can be midleading in terms of individual ability, is that in the coming of age Donal Burke and Colin Currie this year, Na Fianna see their ninth and tenth  hurler who has lined out for Dublin minor hurlers in All-Ireland quarter or semi-finals in the last three years.

And anybody who knows what’s what knows that league form shouldn’t be taken as a compass for championship form, but saying that, the current Division 1 league is throwing up a couple of noteworthy patterns.

Na Fianna have marched out in front with three wins from three, and a highly impressive ten point average winning margin. Without having seen the games, patterns suggest that as minor championship winners now hit 23, 21, 20 and 19 this year, the extra year in age, along with the new crop, might well be about to propel Na Fianna into a serious contender.

Craobh, by contrast, have lost three from three with an average losing margin of eleven points! None were against sides who reached the championship semi’s last year.

O’Toole’s form has been more moderate, with two narrowish losses against big guns from three, but again, must be compared to last year’s league where they won ten from eleven!

And, course, typically it’s the sides with less county players who should expect to box above their weight level in the league, so O’Tooles’, and more so Craobh’s league form, should be cause for respective concern.

You have to ask the question, are the years finally catching up on these two great teams?

But saying that, the fact still remains, that the battle-hardened championship veterans of O’Toole’s and Craobh have the recent form on Na Fianna. Without having been at the league games, it would be naïve to assume they’ll now leap frog two battle hardened sides.

It’s also worth noting that, albeit they’ve put up three whopping score-lines, 7-19, 4-27 and 2-28, the sides they’ve beaten occupy three of the bottom five spots. There’s a lot of questions still to be answered.

The nous of Brendan McLoughlin in goals and Mikey Carton in the half back went a long way towards O’Toole’s dismantling Crumlin in last year’s quarters. If O’Toole’s can manufacture a possession game, added to no shortage of Streamville steel, even with age going against them, they could out-manoeuvre the Na Fianna young guns still.

Albeit, in the Autumn of their playing days, a half back line with Ger O’Meara and Mikey Carton, with Kevin Ryan behind them at full back, is a serious foundation if they don’t find themselves having to face Na Fianna young guns man on man. The Arthur brothers’ pace with Liam Ryan conducting the orchestra up front still has the capacity to dismantle top defences in the right circumstances.

Craobh by comparison appeared to have trouble playing the possession game against Croke’s in last year’s quarters, and trailed by 2-8 to 0-2 after twenty minutes. Darren Kelly was left exposed in acres of space at centre back, as were the full back line, throughout the first half. Wing forward, Robbie Mahon, alone accounted for six points of their 1-6!

For me it still stacks up that in the right circumstances, O’Tooles’ battle-hardened championship veterans could out-manoeuvre and out-steel Na Fianna young guns. Maybe.

They’ll be chomping at the bit to prove me wrong, but I’m not convinced that steel alone is going to get Craobh over the line against a young, fit, fast and capable Na Fianna side, this time.

Of course, when O’Toole’s play Craobh, neither side is going to be conceding a huge amount in terms of age/pace, so it will be a throw-back to the good ol’ days, and not far off a 50/50.

I honestly haven’t seen them hurl in some years so I can only speculate on what Barróg could potentially do, but their Division 2 status would suggest it will be a step to far to win two out of three.

The key game which will tell us where this one is at is this Saturday in O’Toole Park when Na Fianna will challenge Craobh. My feeling is that with two minor championship winning teams a year older, and another coming of age, the dynamics of this one will finally have flipped in Na Fianna’s favour.

The likelihood is that Na Fianna and O’Toole’s will be top of the group come Saturday evening, and Croabh and O’Toole’s will have it all to play for in the final game after the summer (whether O’Toole’s beat Na Fianna next week or not).

And it’s certainly not beyond reason that Na Fianna could beat Craobh, O’Tooles’ could beat Na Fianna, and Craobh beat O’Toole’s. And the drama could be furthered if Barróg can come out of the long grass and take down O’Toole’s or Craobh. I couldn’t see them beating Na Fianna.

Considering that Craobh would have been playing with almost a full pack in the league, and Na Fianna wouldn’t, and they occupy the opposite ends of the table right now, you have to fancy Na Fianna’s young guns this Saturday.

Depsite this, I’d still look at the game from six months ago as the primary guideline for O’Toole’s and Na Fianna. I’d go for O’Toole’s, ever so slightly more than 50/50. Though, assuming it’s all to play for, I’d still make O’Toole’s versus Chiaráin close to 50/50 in the final game.

All of that sized up, I’d marginally go for Na Fianna and O’Toole’s to come out of this one.

Prediction

1 Na Fianna

2O’Tooles’

3 Chiaráin

4Barróg

By Stephen O’Meara

@grassrootsgaa

@somearagaa