WE came to measure the progress of Connacht’s rising stars – and left somewhat dismayed at the extent of their sudden decline.
Under the weight of compelling Mayo pressure, Roscommon’s resistance crumbled at MacHale Park. And friend and foe alike among the 11,657 attendance could only watch and wonder what had become of the challenging prospect the Rossies offered in their league performances last season.
Mayo, to be sure, came refreshed and prepared for a close and contentious scrap. But a shapeless defence offered them little opposition, the life and confidence squeezed out of its limp resistance long before the end.
It was more than their followers had expected, and the smart efficiency with which Mayo dismantled the Rossies’ fortifications will have boosted hopes of another season of fruitfulness.
And yet, amid the mayhem and the mastery, there was reason for caution. Four reasons in fact. Sift through the imbalance, the boredom of the one-sided challenge and the ease with which Mayo moved through a flimsy defence, and warning signals were evident.
On four occasions, Roscommon created chances of goals that were missed only because of the brilliance of David Clarke. All of them were more realistic opportunities than any of Mayo’s creations from play, and any one of them might well have helped lift the gloom descending on Roscommon’s evaporating confidence.
Those scares presented themselves after Mayo had asserted their superiority and, significantly, after Colm Boyle had been dismissed for a rather innocuous black-card offence.
His absence left the centre vulnerable to threats from Roscommon’s Ciaran Murtagh and Conor Devaney. And were it not for the vigilance of the Mayo ’keeper a lot of their first-half superiority might have been diluted by half-time.
From the throw-in Mayo’s intentions were obvious. In the space of four minutes they had kicked four wides, Diarmuid O’Connor at midfield alongside Jason Gibbons assuming instant command.
Having fought his way back from serious injury last year, Gibbons more than fulfilled his midfield duties with a strong showing. His and those of other less established players were performances from which manager Stephen Rochford will take heart.
He will also have noted that Lee Keegan was none the worse for wear from his celebrations after Westport’s All-Ireland star quality success. His entry after Boyle’s departure was greeted with warm appreciation ... his gratitude a couple of trademark points.
The manager will have reflected, too, on the verve of All-Star Brendan Harrison on his return after injury. His zeal when introduced halfway through the second half also yielded a brace of points.
In, too, came Conor Loftus, the under-21 star, out with injury for several months. And he left his mark with swift movement and accuracy. Not to be outdone, the Crossmolina man also pulled in two points during an impressive scoring burst by Mayo.
Starting without David Drake and Jason Doherty of the selected side, Conor O’Shea and Evan Regan took up attacking positions, with Donal Vaughan standing in at corner back and Patrick Durcan assuming his most comfortable role on the wing.
Notable in the first half was the succession of elegant points from Mayo in the 16 minutes between Roscommon’s third and fourth scores.
Cillian O’Connor whipped over four, three unerringly from play, the impressive Fergal Boland a further two and Gibbons and Diarmuid O’Connor one apiece ... eight in all effortlessly.
Yet, despite the best efforts of Cillian and Andy Moran, lack of penetration is still a deficiency with which Mayo have been struggling almost eternally. For all of their dominance on Saturday night, they never fully opened the Roscommon defence to goal opportunities.
Cillian O’Connor and sub Michael Plunkett had goal chances denied them, but none as clear-cut as a couple denied to Roscommon.
After Clarke’s two fine saves from Enda Smith and Seán Mullooly, Roscommon’s half-time lead of six points did not appear irreversible until Cillian drilled home a penalty almost four minutes into the second half.
That finished it, although in fairness to Roscommon, they battled on bravely with little hope of finding any sort of a tonic. On this performance they are heading back to Division 2.
Could Dubs’ invincibility be under threat?
NOW Dublin beckons. With all the memories, the heartbreak, the bad luck, the incomparable duels evoke, the two meet again in Croke Park on Saturday evening.
Their games are now entering the realm of folklore, great contests, great trials of physical and mental endeavour from which Dublin have almost always wrung narrow wins ... and Mayo have been left wondering why.
Revelling in unblemished success, and preparing for a third successive All-Ireland, the dual champions return to Croke Park after a visit to Donegal which they survived last week by the skin of their teeth.
Out of their comfort zone and in dreadful conditions, they found it difficult to exert their Croke Park authority on a rural setting. In the end, though, it was a rather fortuitous free awarded them seconds from the end that enabled Michael Murphy to clip over the equalising point for Donegal.
That performance did prove though that although less commanding they are still a force for any side in any ground.
All of their firepower will be available to them on Saturday in a bid to maintain their enviable record and ward off the threat that Mayo poses ... the most difficult they have encountered over the past few years.
Mayo are in better shape to persist with that challenge than this time last season when they were struggling for points. Still awaiting the return of Ger Cafferkey, their defensive format of last September is still in place.
Stephen Rochford will be happy to have Brendan Harrison and Lee Keegan back to shore up that format. Their return is timely and essential. And while neither will be at his sharpest, a further episode in the Keegan-Connolly duel is a central attraction.
After his one-match suspension, Tom Parsons will be back, and is vital to an area that Brian Fenton has been dominating for Dublin. Mayo need more that an even break in the middle of the field to form any sort of a winning platform.
Although Dublin are once again clear favourites, the history of their confrontations suggests that Mayo take them on with a greater chance of success that any other opposition.
That chance might have increased by Saturday if the O’Sheas were back in action. Without them there is an imbalance in physicality.
But in Fergal Boland and Conor Loftus, Mayo have a couple of young forwards whose pace and confidence compensates to a large degree for their lack of muscle.
Nobody expects Mayo to win. But a marked improvement was obvious against Kerry and Roscommon. Having already drawn with Tyrone and Donegal, the question is could the invincibility of the Dubs be under threat? This is a chance for Mayo to test the validity of any such notion.