Can anyone dethrone the champions?
Paul Brennan looks at the field for the 2017 County Championship and finds it hard to make a case beyond Dr Crokes retaining their county title
It's a moot point now as to whether or not last weekend's preliminary round contest between St Brendan's and Shannon Rangers signalled the actual start of the actual County SFC, but there's no doubting that this weekend's neat parcel of eight First Round matches is the real starting point for this year's competition.
St Brendan's take their place among the eight clubs and eight divisional teams by virtue of their 31-point decoration of Shannon Rangers and the hope is that that result will be, by some distance, the only landslide win in the race for the Bishop Moynihan Cup. Of the other 15 teams in the race there are, as ever, the serious contenders, the hopefuls, and the rank outsiders. A cursory look at the field would suggest that reigning champions Dr Crokes, along with Austin Stacks, Dingle, Rathmore and South Kerry would be the serious contenders, while the 'hopefuls' category would be swelled with Kerins O'Rahillys, Legion, Mid Kerry, Feale Rangers, St Kierans and West Kerry. The rest - Kilcummin, East Kerry, Kenmare, Kenmare District and St Brendans - would have to be considered the outsiders.
On closer consideration it's hard to challenge this hierarchy. It would be easy to make Dr Crokes favourites for the 2017 title based solely on their victory in the 2016 edition, but given that they since went on to become All-Ireland Club champions and have Colm Cooper all to themselves for the entirety of the summer, it further hardens the odds on them retaining the title. It would seem the only thing that could come against them is that the presence of the Andy Merrigan Cup in Lewis Road might dull their appetite to go to the well again. We say 'could' and 'might' but we're not convinced that will be the case. For one thing, much wants more, so don't let anyone tell you that Dr Crokes are not thinking about retaining the Merrigan Cup as well as the Moynihan Cup in the next ten months. With Cooper's Kerry career behind him - and with a cohort of uber-talented young players emerging - Dr Crokes must surely rank as the team to beat, but the championship won't lack for teams going all out to dethrone the county, provincial and All-Ireland champions.
It seems a little odd that last year's beaten finalists, Kenmare District, find themselves - by our reckoning at least - in the outsiders column this year, but the devil is in the detail. Last year's District team was, essentially, an amalgamation of the Kenmare and Templenoe clubs. Yes, Tuosist and Kilgarvan were there too, but when you consider that only one Tuosist man, and no Kilgarvan player, featured in the county final loss to Crokes, Kenmare District was, in essence, a two-club team last year. With Kenmare Shamrocks winning the Intermediate Championship and going senior as a club, that leaves the divisional team as pretty much the Templenoe team. Notwithstanding that Kenmare and Templenoe contested last year's Intermediate final, and that Kenmare have qualified for this year's County Senior Club final, it's not unreasonable to assume that they and the Templenoe-heavy Kenmare District team will struggle to reach the latter stages of the SFC.
So who are Dr Crokes biggest challengers? If we are to discount last year's beaten finalist, then we turn to the beaten semi-finalists and consider Rathmore and Dingle. The former have shown in the East Kerry SFC of late that they can compete with and beat Dr Crokes. But while there's no wish to diminish Rathmore's achievement of winning three consecutive O'Donoghue Cups, questions remain about their ability to repeat that level of performance in the broader county championship. Likewise Dingle, who have been the formidable power in their district but who have yet to deliver on the promise that has been building in the club for four or five seasons.
Rathmore will again look to talismen like Aidan O'Mahony, Paul Murphy, Shane Ryan and George O'Keeffe but they will need to get the maximum out of the supporting cast if they're to make the next step and reach a county final, perhaps even win it.
At least some of this Dingle team have been to a county final but it would seem the scars of their 2-13 to 0-8 loss to Dr Crokes in the 2012 decider are only fading now. The healing process has been greatly helped the arrival of a group of young players only accustomed to success - Corn Ui Mhuiri, Hogan Cup and All-Ireland minor titles - and the feeling is that the 2017 Dingle team is somewhat better than that 2011/12 model. There's little doubt that the talents of Paul and Mikey Geaney are well supported by the O'Sullivan brothers, Barry and Dara, Matthew Flaherty, Cathal Bambury and the two Tom O'Sullivans, and reaching at least the last four should not be beyond them.
Austin Stacks are the other club team that have to best respected most, if only for the fact that most of the current team know how to win this competition. Having won outright in 2014, there's a wealth of title-winning experience in the squad, and the greatest task for new manager Pat Flanagan is to wed that experience with the obvious talent and the sometimes questionable desire to build a squad better than the sum of its parts.
On the divisional team front early assessments and predictions are fraught with danger given the absence of information on our part and form on theirs. What we can assume is that the usual suspects will rise up as the championship progresses and the usual suspects of late are South Kerry and Mid Kerry. Champions two years ago, South Kerry remain the divisional side most like a club team, which is a notable achievement given the large number of clubs they draw from. The advantages of a deep pool of players should really be offset by the 'took many cooks' argument but it's been a credit to successive waves of players and management teams on the southern peninsula that they always emerge with a team more than capable of winning county championships in the last decade and a half.
Mid Kerry, too, have generally wrung the best out of themselves in recent times, although some would view their 2008 title win - their only one since 1992 - as a poor return on what has been a very decent talent pool in the last decade or so. The district team will lean on Donnchach Walsh, Peter Crowley, Darran O'Sullivan, Gavan O'Grady and Pa Kilkenny for leadership and should be emboldened by Glenbeigh/Glencar's recent All-Ireland Club title success.
Beyond those two, St Kierans - under the management of James Sheehan - have the raw talent to be very competitive but will need an early victory to give them the conviction to kick on; West Kerry could prove awkward opposition for any side as they build a team around an emerging An Ghaeltacht team; and Feale Rangers - if all their stars were to align perfectly should be targeting the quarter-finals at the very least.
Beaten county finalists in 2008, Kerins O'Rahillys, and 2015, Legion, can hardly be discounted lightly, and both clubs certainly have quality players to trouble and team on any given day. The problem for both, as we see it, is that the supporting cast isn't quite good enough in either camp to buttress the inter-county nucleus of David Moran, Barry John Keane and Jack Savage in O'Rahillys' case, and James O'Donoghue, Conor Keane, Brian Kelly and Jonathan Lyne in Legion's.
That leaves Kilcummin, East Kerry and St Brendans, none of which on recent championship form should trouble the quarter-final draw but you never know. St Brendan's decimation of Shannon Rangers must be taken in context but neither can it be dismissed. In Jack and Andrew Barry, Brandon Barrett, David O'Callaghan and Ivan Parker there's a core of players that no opposition will treat lightly.
So where is the destination of the Bishop Moynihan Cup likely to be when the Championship concluded in 22 or 23 weeks?
Obviously, predictions beyond the first round are predicated on the open draw for subsequent rounds, while the venues for certain ties can have a significant bearing. Not many teams, for example, come away from Con Keating Park having beaten the home side.
And who can forget the almighty fright Dr Crokes were given by St Kierans when taken out to Cordal for a second round fixture?
And we can be sure that a quietly fancied Dingle team won't be looking forward to their trip to Templenoe this Saturday evening for their opening round game against Kenmare District.
In time - and through the back-door - one or more divisional teams will mount a serious challenge for ultimate honours, but a layman's guess at the first round fixtures would point to five, possibly six, club teams coming through as winners this weekend.
We'd expect South Kerry and Mid Kerry to mount the most sustained challenge from the divisional teams, but given the protracted nature of the competition it's difficult to draw a line from mid May to late October with any degree of accuracy.
The one thing we can predict with reasonable certainty is that the champions will be knocking about in October and it will take a great team and effort to dethrone Dr Crokes.