By Ray Silke
This time last year Mayo trounced Roscommon by 0-21 to 0-9 in McHale Park in the provincial semi-final.
It was a humiliating defeat for John Evan’s men and an improving Roscommon panel will be determined not to allow a repeat of that debacle this Sunday in Hyde Park (2pm ).
A fair bit has changed in the intervening year and Roscommon football seems to be in a better place. They were promoted as champions from division three in the league and looked determined and organised when coming from behind to beat Cavan in the league final. Their u21s also made it to the All-Ireland final and their younger players will have learnt significant lessons from their defeat to Dublin in that final.
It is difficult to know where Mayo’s form is currently. They looked average enough in their league semi-final defeat to Derry and it is impossible to read anything into their facile win over New York.
Suffice to say, they are an extremely difficult team to beat and are in the top two or three teams in the country for both consistency and experience.
They have four current All-Stars in Keith Higgins, Lee Keegan, Colm Boyle, and Aidan O’ Shea. However, none of them is a star forward.
There will be considerable interest in what plan, if any, James Horan has for retired rugby star Gavin Duffy. The Ballina man’s decision to join the Mayo championship panel has attracted considerable media attention and there is a communal desire to see if he can adapt to top level Gaelic football after more than a decade in professional rugby.
If Duffy could make an impact as a forward for Mayo, it would be a real boon, as the team has lacked a little bit of leadership up front to help drive them over the All-Ireland final line in the past two seasons.
James Horan’s team for Sunday shows that he’s not afraid to change things up by dropping his captain Andy Moran - you’ve got to respect a man for making big decisions like that. It’s a sign of the way things are going. We didn’t really know where Mayo were going after the league and this shows that Horan is ready to go. It’ll add some excitement and freshness to the team and people will be very interested to see how the likes of Conor O’Shea and Diarmuid O’Connor fare out on Sunday in their first real championship test. Roscommon’s Niall Daly who has been the heartbeat of the team from centre-half back will be relishing the chance to take on the two young Mayo half-forwards and put it up to them.
Mayo are an experienced outfit and they are blistering favourites to reach yet another Connacht final. I watched Roscommon easily defeat Leitrim in their first game and they looked a solid outfit. In Niall Daly, Seánie McDermott, Cathal Cregg, Kevin Higgins, Senan Kilbride, Niall Carty, Donie Shine, and u21 star Diarmuid Murtagh, they have some genuinely talented players.
When a team is on a bit of a roll as Roscommon is, the players really start to believe in themselves and their manager. And the experienced John Evans has his team playing to a plan in which they believe.
However, that belief will be tested to the limit at the Hyde on Sunday. Facing a top quality division one team will be a big step up in class. Mayo were in the All-Ireland semi-final in 2011, and have been in the past two finals. A professional, ambitious, and experienced outfit, they will not take Roscommon for granted. The half-back line of Keegan, Boyle, and Vaughan is one of the best in the game. The bookies are confident of a green and red victory, having Mayo at 1/6, with the home side at 9/2.
Roscommon are plus five in the handicap betting, and if they stick with Mayo for the first half, they are capable of coming inside that spread. I have been impressed with Roscommon’s progression over the past six months and there can be no doubt that they are an improving squad, but assuming Mayo turn up in the right frame of mind, it is impossible to go for anything except a Mayo win.