By Niall Gartland
AUTOMATIC progression to the Tailteann Cup quarter-finals is the prize on offer for table-toppers Down and Meath in Saturday’s final group stage clash in Parnell Park (1pm).
As things stand, Down’s superior score difference separates them from Meath at the top of group two. However, if Down lose this one, they’ll face into a preliminary quarter-final clash on their next day out while Meath would leapfrog them into taking the automatic last-eight spot.
Down didn’t have their best day out when they were turfed out of the Ulster Championship by a goal-happy Armagh team.
It had the potential to derail the good progress made in the first year of Conor Laverty’s time in charge, but they’ve responded well and claimed thumping victories over Waterford and Tipperary in their previous group stage matches in the Tailteann Cup.
Of course, mention must be made of the calibre of opposition to date – Waterford finished second from bottom in Division Four back in the spring and were never going to mount a credible challenge, while Tipperary, Munster champions only three years ago, have regressed significantly and finished dead last in Division Three this season.
So it’s a bit of a step up when they face Meath this weekend, who are also two-from-two and only sit second on the table due to an inferior points difference to Down.
Managed by Royal County legend Colm O’Rourke, they haven’t enjoyed a drastic up-turn in fortunes. They just about stayed afloat in Division Two and fell to a bitterly disappointing defeat to Offaly in the Leinster Championship.
After that game, O’Rourke offered ‘no excuses’ for their disappointing display and said ‘Meath are were we deserve to be’ as they turned their attentions to the secondary Tailteann Cup competition.
Like Down, they won their group stage matches against Waterford and Tipperary with plenty to spare, so it’s hard to know exactly where they stand heading into what’s bound to be a much sterner test this weekend.
Meath have a few glaring problem areas that have yet to be remedied including a vulnerable looking defence and they’re a very inexperienced crew with around a dozen players making their championship debuts this season.
The Mourne County are also trying to restore past glories under the watchful eye of Conor Laverty, but the sense is they’re already a bit further along the road. Players like Pat Havern and Ryan Johnston are experienced, while Odhrán Murdock, who played in their recent Ulster u-20 win over Derry, seems to be a special talent who deserves all the plaudits that seem to be going his way on a weekly basis.
While Cavan are the outright favourites for the Tailteann Cup, Down will quietly fancy their chances of going all the way. You’d still expect Down to rack up a big enough score to round off their group stage campaign with a win and book their place in the last eight.