IT’S another indication of just how challenging Division 2 of the National Football League, which starts at the weekend, is going to be after three of Cork’s opponents all reached the finals of their pre-season warm-up competitions.
Manager John Cleary’s side faced Limerick in the McGrath Cup decider in Mallow, winning by 0-19 to 2-7, adding to the previous week’s success against Clare in Quilty.
Cork will face their Munster rivals at various stages, hosting Limerick and travelling to Ennis to play the Banner, confident in collecting a maximum return from both.
Up north, Ulster champions Derry lifted the Dr McKenna Cup with a big win over Tyrone and they’ll visit Leeside on the final weekend of the league when all the promotion and relegation issues will be decided.
Prior to that, Cork travel to play Louth in Ardee, the Wee County having reached the final of the O’Byrne Cup, a competition dotted with controversy over walkovers but losing heavily to Longford.
How significant any of this remains to be seen because the league will rise an appreciable level with seven games packed together in something like 10 weeks when panels’ strengths will be tested.
Cork begin with Colm O’Rourke’s Meath heading to Páirc Uí Chaoimh for a 1.30pm throw-in on Sunday and it’s a massive game for both counties with a requirement of trying to win your opener uppermost in the thought processes.
Cork’s stock has lifted with the results, performances and form of the players in the McGrath Cup. Having just survived last season, the Rebels are now rated 12/1 in the betting to win promotion to Division 1.
Unsurprisingly, Dublin, relegated at the end of the 2022 campaign, are the 1/3 red hot favourites to spring back to the top tier immediately along with 9/2 Derry.
The Dubs meet fellow relegated Kildare at Croke Park on Saturday-the condition of the pitch at headquarters getting a right doing among the chattering classes-a game that is sure to be quite revealing.
Limerick and Louth, promoted from Division 3 last year, are tipped to slip through the trapdoor and the Shannonsiders couldn’t have asked for a more difficult assignment than Derry in Owenbeg on Saturday.
Clare host Louth in Ennis on Sunday and the outcome here will have a big say in the relegation battle in the long term.
The league is again critical in 2023 because of its links to the championship. Every team in the country has just one immediate target for the new season, ensuring they’re one of the 16 counties contesting the Sam Maguire Cup, which has another, different format in the summer. Otherwise, it’s the tier-two Tailteann Cup.
One of Leitrim, London, or Sligo will make it to the Connacht final against either Galway, Mayo, or Roscommon because of the lop-sided draw.
The 16 teams will be divided into four pools of four, ensuring every county plays a minimum of three games. The format is that each of the groups will have a provincial winner, who will enjoy home advantage first, as well as a runner-up from another province and two more teams based on league standings.
Every team will play a home, away, and neutral game, with the winners of the four sections qualifying for the All-Ireland quarter-finals. The teams finishing second and third will go into a preliminary quarter-final draw, with the higher-ranked team at home.
That’s obviously further down the road for most counties, whose immediate priority is creating a favourable impression in the league.
Monaghan v Armagh, Castleblaney, 6.30pm; Mayo v Galway, Castlebar, 7.30pm.
Derry v Limerick, Owenbeg, 3pm; Dublin v Kildare, Croke Park, 5pm.
Fermanagh v Longford, Ederney, 2pm; Tipperary v Down, Thurles, 6pm.
Carlow v Wicklow, Cullen Park, 7pm; Wexford v London, Wexford Park, 7pm.
Roscommon v Tyrone, Dr Hyde Park, 1.30pm; Donegal v Ballybofey, 2pm.
Cork v Meath, Páirc Uí Chaoimh, 1.30pm; Clare v Louth, Cusack Park, 2pm.
Westmeath v Cavan, Mullingar, 2pm; Antrim v Offaly, Belfast, 2pm.
Leitrim v Waterford, Carrick-on-Shannon, 1pm; Sligo v Laois, Markievicz Park, 2pm.