IT surely is a sign of the times that Cork football fans will look north this weekend and pay more attention to the Ulster championship than would normally be the case.
The two outstanding quarter-finals take place this evening between Cavan and Armagh at Breffni Park at 6.30 and tomorrow between Down and Donegal in Newry at 2pm.
The reason? Cork’s fate in terms of their participation in the All-Ireland championship this summer lies in the outcome of these two games because if Cavan and Down win then it’s almost certain the Rebels will be heading to the Tailteann Cup.
Qualification criteria is complicated and long-winded. By finishing fourth in Division 2 in the league Cork are ranked 12 of the 16 teams who’ll compete for the Sam Maguire, but, there’s always a but, other factors are at play too, like the provincial finalists progressing as seeds one and two in the new style group phase style, four teams of four with three to qualify for the knock-out stage.
That, in addition to Westmeath qualifying because of their Tailteann Cup success last season, has resulted in Cork dropping in the rankings due to teams from divisions 3 and 4 reaching their provincial finals and overtaking them in the process.
This is the case in Munster, where Limerick and Clare who were both relegated from Division 2 clash at the Gaelic Grounds this evening at 7pm for a place in the final and more importantly advancing to join the other elite counties in the All-Ireland.
And it’s the same up west where lowly Sligo and New York meet at Markievicz Park this afternoon at 2.30 to determine who reaches the Connacht final and rub shoulders with the big boys in the search for Sam later.
Meath, who ended up sixth in Division 2, are also set to impact on Cork’s position because they’re on the so-called weaker side of the draw in Leinster and are fancied to make the final.
Suddenly, Cork are coming dangerously close to the cut-off point which is where the importance of those two games in Ulster comes into focus.
Rarely will Armagh and Donegal have as much support in the real capital though it’s set to be a roller-coaster of a ride because both games are difficult to call.
Cavan won Division 3 and are recent Ulster champions, too, so they’ve plenty of experience of knowing what it takes, their position amplified by playing in front of their own passionate fans, too.
Armagh, who again have former Kerry star Kieran Donaghy in their coaching team, do have the benefit of an opening round game against Antrim, who didn’t really test their opponents, hence their true form is unknown, especially after being relegated from Division 1.
This could go either way even if the bookies make Armagh marginal favourites and it’s the same with Donegal, who also slipped out of the top tier in the league amid all sorts of issues off the pitch, though Down remain a Division 3 side after being pipped by Cavan for promotion.
There are a couple of interesting Leinster quarter-finals tomorrow. Louth, who finished third in Division 2, travel to play already qualified Westmeath in what is shaping up to be a close affair as will be the case in Tullamore for a Meath side short of confidence against Offaly, who will quietly fancy their chances of an upset.
Kildare are also vulnerable to missing out, especially as they’re on the same side of the draw as Dublin, who are raging hot favourites to retain their title, making it 13 on the spin.
As for Munster? Kerry-Tipperary in Killarney hardly needs mentioning, but Limerick might surprise everyone and give neighbours Clare a bellyful of it at the Gaelic Grounds tonight.
Connacht SFC semi-final: Sligo v New York, Markievicz Park, 2.30.
Munster SFC semi-finals: Kerry v Tipperary, Killarney, 4pm; Limerick v Clare, Gaelic Grounds, 7pm.
Ulster SFC quarter-final: Cavan v Armagh, Breffni Park, 6.30.
Connacht SFC semi-final: Roscommon v Galway, Dr Hyde Park, 4pm.
Leinster SFC quarter-finals: Westmeath v Louth, Mullingar, 2pm; Kildare v Wicklow, Newbridge 2.30; Laois v Dublin, Portlaoise, 3.30; Offaly v Meath, Tullamore, 4pm.
Ulster SFC quarter-final: Down v Donegal, Newry, 2pm.