CAN Cork bridge an 18-year gap by beating Kerry in Killarney next Sunday?
The indications are that they can, even if the pointers provided during the spring campaign in the league weren't particularly enlightening in relation to what the championship has in store for either of Munster's elite.
True, they both have two games under the belt, but Kerry didn't have to move out of second gear to dispatch Tipperary and Waterford in turn, while Cork did little more than was required to advance at the expense of Limerick and Clare. As for the league, Cork's primary aim was to run the rule over some fresh blood, and they certainly didn't lose any sleep over the fact that they failed to retain the Division 1 title, as they had done for the previous two seasons.
Kerry experimented as well, but the results weren't particularly encouraging, and it was only after a few of the old hands returned that they recovered from a potentially start and put a string of dismal displays behind them to stave off demotion.
It's an obvious worry for Kerry in the long-term that the bulk of their marquee names have a lot of mileage on the clock, and that the chickens might soon be coming home to roost as a result of the Kingdom's poor record at underage level over the past ten years or so.
Of more immediate concern to Kerry is that an All-Ireland title has proved elusive since 2009, and that their big-game players aren't getting any better at this stage. For Sunday's showdown with the old enemy, the Kerry team will have an all too familiar look about it, with Peter Crowley, Johnny Buckley and James O'Donoghue, perhaps, the only comparative newcomers in the starting fifteen.
O'Donoghue isn't exactly a rookie of course, as, having done well when sprung from the bench in the Munster semi-final at Pairc Uí Chaoimh last year, he retained his place in attack for the remainder of the championship, which saw Kerry making their exit at Donegal's hands in the All-Ireland quarter-final. Crowley also played against Cork last year, but he made just one more appearance, as a substitute in a qualifier against Tyrone, after that.
Unearthing fresh talent is obviously a problem for Kerry, although the team was never going to be overhauled to a significant extent, given that the likes of the Gooch, Paul Galvin, Kieran Donaghy, Declan O'Sullivan, Tomás and Marc Ó Sé and Co. are not yet quite ready to be put out to pasture. Kerry are still very much a formidable power, there is no question about that, but one suspects they are not the force they once were, and that they might be living on borrowed time at this juncture.
They will be hell-bent on proving that talk of an imminent decline is grossly exaggerated next Sunday, but Cork will be equally keen to claim the bragging rights in Munster, especially since they probably sense that Kerry could be ripe for the plucking on their home patch for the first time since 1995. Cork are not going to keep losing in Killarney forever, and, if anything, they will have more going for them than was the case when they ended a sequence of four fruitless championship encounters with Kerry at Pairc Uí Chaoimh last year.
In contrast to Kerry, Cork would appear to have enjoyed considerable success in developing the panel over the past 12 months, with no fewer than six players – 'keeper Ken O'Halloran, Fermoy's Tomas Clancy, Damien Cahalane, John O'Rourke, Brian Hurley and Antrim import James Loughrey – being handed a championship debut in the opening assignment against Limerick
All six were retained for the Munster semi-final against Clare when Donncha O'Connor, Ciaran Sheehan, Noel O'Leary and Aidan Walsh were numbered among the 'regulars' held in reserve. Walsh, who was nursing an injury for the semi-final, is guaranteed to return at midfield on Sunday, and it's a fair bet that Sheehan will also be accommodated up front.
But nothing is set in stone as far as the Cork manageme nt is concerned, competition for places is seriously intense, and if Conor Counihan decides to give youth its fling in earnest, it will leave him with a wealth of players with proven credentials to spring from the bench.
With the exception of James Loughrey, who played against Kerry in an All-Ireland qualifier in 2009, this will be the biggest test to date for the Rebel newcomers, but it would be no great surprise should they all rise to the challenge, especially u-21 star Brian Hurley, who has been earmarked as a forward with a tremendous future at the top level since his minor days. It goes without saying that if such as Cooper, Donaghy, Galvin and Declan O'Sullivan strike top form up front, Kerry prospects would be greater enhanced.
But if Eoin Cadogan and James Loughrey can lim it the influence of Donaghy and Cooper respectively, and Graham Canty and Aidan Walsh gain an edge, as is quite likely, at midfield against the Kerry pairing of Johnny Buckley and Anthony Maher, Cork will hardly be denied the glory.
Bearing in mind that Kerry have struggled to go the distance more than once in major games – including last year's Munster semi-final when Cork pulled clear in the last quarter to finish comfortable winners by five points – since they last lifted Sam, they could be in trouble if the issue is still in the balance at the three-quarter stage on Sunday.
All logic would suggest that Cork – having freshened the team up a bit, and in view of the greater depth of their options – are better-equipped to put in the stronger finish than they were this time 12 months ago.
But sport isn't an exact science, and, no doubt, most pundits will feel the Fitzgerald Stadium factor can't be dismissed lightly when it comes to assessing how the game is likely to pan out.