By Mark Higgins
The group stages of the Mayo club championships reached their culminations last weekend with Round 3 of the senior, intermediate and exclusive junior competitions.
Round 3 of the senior championship passed off without any significant shocks; all of the leading contenders for the Moclair Cup ensured their passage through to the knockout phase without too much stress.
Seven of this year’s eight quarter-finalists are the same as last year’s, a statistic which speaks to the consistency of the top teams but also might serve as something of a warning for the game-makers in Mayo GAA; the same few teams competing for the honours every season can quickly become tedious.
The exception to the rule is Claremorris, who have qualified for their first senior quarter-final since 2018. Their win over Belmullet in Tallagh stands out as the most impressive result across the group stages, allowing Kevin Beirne’s team to advance from Group 3 at the expense of last year’s beaten county finalists. They finished the job with a composed win over Balla in Hollymount last Sunday, with leading figures like James Shaughnessy, Conor Diskin and Colin Gill pointing the way to the last eight.
Elsewhere things played out largely as we would have expected. The final round in Group 1 was a bit of a non-event, Westport and Ballintubber recording anticipated comfortable wins to secure their passage to the quarter-finals, Westport as group winners and ‘Tubber as runners-up.
Things went along similarly predictable lines in Group 2 on Sunday; Ballina Stephenites put a disappointing Aghamore to the sword at MacHale Park to ensure they finished as group winners, while the defending champions Knockmore had too much for Ballaghaderreen in Charlestown to join their North Mayo neighbours in the last eight.
It was a bleak weekend for the east all-round; all of Ballaghaderreen, Aghamore and Charlestown went into Round 3 with the possibility of reaching the last eight still on the cards, but results on Sunday meant the division will have no representation in the quarter-finals whatsoever.
Charlestown came closest, and at least managed to hold up their end of the bargain by winning their Round 3 clash with Davitts, but events elsewhere meant the Sarsfields’ destiny was taken out of their own control. The draw between Mitchels and Garrymore suited both teams down to the ground, and while Charlestown might be slightly aggrieved at the reports of a subdued last few minutes in that encounter in Cong, the reality is that had they beaten Garrymore at home in Round 2, they would have qualified.
Breaffy ensured their progression as one of only two teams (along with Westport) with a 100 per cent winning record in the group with a win over Belmullet in Crossmolina on Saturday, dishing out some revenge for last year’s quarter-final defeat and essentially ending Belmullet’s season in the process. Ryan O’Donoghue’s long-awaited return wasn’t enough to deny the Breaffy boys, who are nicely-poised heading into the last eight.
The subsequent quarter-final draw has thrown up a couple of intriguing encounters for this weekend. The pick of the ties is probably Castlebar Mitchels v Knockmore, which has received the prime-time Sunday afternoon slot at MacHale Park. The game will be a repeat of the Mayo SFL Division 1 final between the teams in Ballina in August, a match Mitchels won by a point after extra-time.
Knockmore still aren’t quite performing at the levels we have seen from them in the last couple of years but their mission to claim a first-ever three-in-a-row of county titles is still on course. Mitchels, as the only club to actually achieve that feat in the last 40 years (between 2015 and 2017) would no doubt dearly love to be the ones to break Knockmore hearts.
That will be the opening game of a double-header in Castlebar on Sunday, to be followed by a derby between Breaffy and Ballintubber. The two teams know one another inside and out, although they haven’t actually met in the championship since the county final of 2018, a match Ballintubber won by a single point.
With doubts lingering over the fitness of Cillian O’Connor — who didn’t feature in the win over The Neale last Saturday — Breaffy will regard this as a golden chance to repay some of the heartbreak they have endured at the hands of the Abbey boys over the last decade.
The only senior quarter-final down for Saturday is the meeting of Westport and Garrymore in Flanagan Park in Ballinrobe. Garrymore remain unbeaten in this year’s championship and will feel as though they can spring an ambush as the Coveys venture south. But if Westport have serious aspirations of going all the way and winning a first-ever county title, these are the types of games, against seasoned and sticky opponents like Garrymore, in which they need to be proving their credentials.
Lastly on Sunday, there’s an interesting battle in store at Fr O’Hara Park as the Stephenites meet Claremorris. This will be a reunion between current Ballina manager Niall Heffernan and Claremorris, the side he managed in 2019. The Stephenites crashed out at this stage of last year’s championship and will be desperate to avoid the same fate, and to build on an excellent group stage showing, by seeing off their South Mayo opponents here.
Also taking place this weekend are the relegation semi-finals, which will pair Ballaghaderreen against Davitts on Saturday and Balla against The Neale on Sunday. Ballaghaderreen should have enough about them to get out of trouble in what could very well be Andy Moran’s last-ever game of senior football, while Balla will be fancied to get over a team from The Neale who have been absolutely crippled by injury and unfortunately look to be spiralling out of the senior ranks.
The intermediate championship also has its quarter-final pairings confirmed after an eventful final round of group stage games.
The likes of Louisburgh, Crossmolina, Ballyhaunis and Ballinrobe all sealed their spots in the last eight with expected victories, although Moy Davitts sailed perilously close to the wind in their clash with Mitchels, needing a Cian McHale free in the sixth minute of second-half stoppage time to earn a one-point win and squeeze through to the knockout phase.
The straight shootout in Group 2 went the way of Parke/Keelogues/Crimlin, who held off a late Burrishoole fightback to emerge with a one-point win in their clash at MacHale Park.
The performance of Ronan Carolan was one of last weekend’s biggest talking points as his case for a look-in with the Mayo squad only grows stronger.
There was high drama in Group 4, meanwhile, as two of the presumed Sweeney Cup contenders, Kiltimagh and Kilmaine, crashed out of the running. Kilmaine were soundly-beaten by Hollymount-Carramore in their southern derby, a result which sent Holly-Carra through as group winners and restored Tom Connelly’s boys to the ranks of the favourites for the intermediate crown.
Kiltimagh, meanwhile, could only draw with Kilmeena, a result which sent last year’s junior champions through to the last eight by virtue of their superior scoring difference. They will go up against Ballinrobe in the quarters, while Ballyhaunis face Parke, Louisburgh meet Moy Davitts and Hollymount-Carramore go up against Crossmolina.
The relegation play-offs will see Kiltane attempt to arrest what has been an alarming slide as they face northern rivals Ardnaree, while Lahardane will have their work cut out against Kilmaine.