It will be a different Carlow this time
WE'LL admit it right here, right now: we were wrong.
Scarcely did we believe that Eamonn Kelly and his management team were going to be able to whip this Kerry team into the type of shape they're in, in such a short period of time. The new regime was appointed just before Christmas, with the squad's first sessions coming in early January. Far from ideal preparation you would have thought.
Lambs to the slaughter against Tipperary, we reasoned. When that didn't come to pass, when this new look Kerry (shorn of the vast majority of the players who started last year's Christy Ring Cup Final) put it up to the Premier for a good two thirds of the game, we still weren't convinced.
A heavy pitch, a poor day, a pre-season tournament, it was nothing to get excited about. Nothing to make us re-appraise our initial assumptions that Kerry were in for a tough time of it over the coming weeks and months.
Before the National League we met with captain John Egan and asked him, genuinely, was this league campaign simply about survival. The St Brendans man smiled a knowing smile and pointed out that people were saying the exact same thing the year before. It's true, they were. It's also true, as Egan noted, that they were just scoring difference away from a place in the final.
Scoring difference wouldn't keep Kerry out of this year's final. They topped the table with five wins from five, including victories over old rivals Westmeath and, crucially, Carlow. Their scoring difference wasn't half bad either, plus 45, the best in the division. Across all the divisons it was only bettered by Down's record of plus 46 in Division 2B.
On every metic this was a better league campaign than last and Division 2A was, arguably, just as competitive a division this year as last. Okay, maybe Carlow aren't quite at Laois' level – just how good Laois are was proved last weekend in their quarter-final clash with Clare.
Then again the Carlow we're thinking about, the Carlow which came to Tralee, won't be the Carlow the Kingdom face in Semple Stadium. Since then they've welcomed back nine Mount Leinster Rangers players to the fold.
That's a massive boost in any man's language. There's absolutely no shame in not being able to halt the Portumna machine and the brilliance of Joe Canning, probably the finest hurler of his generation.
To get to where they got from where they were just a few years ago is geniunely inspiring. To go from winning the All Ireland intermediate championship a handful of years ago to within a couple of pucks of a ball of the Tommy Moore Cup is breathtaking.
It should also tell us all we need to know about the injection of quality and determination those nine players will bring to the party. The spine of Carlow team will be much improved. Richard Coady is fully expected to return to the side at centre-back. Eddie Byrne to centre-forward. Denis Murphy and Paul Coady – who scored three second half points in the final – are also expected to feature in Semple.
That alone should be enough to bridge the six point gap the existed between themselves and the Kingdom when they faced off in Austin Stack Park last month. That and a renewed focus and intensity. A focus that John Meyler felt was lacking that afternoon, citing the All Ireland club final in twenty four hours time as the reason.
Knowing Meyler he'll have Carlow much better tuned in for this game. There are few managers operating at this level who bring to bear the level of professionalism and just all round class as he does.
The Wexford native's second tenure here in the Kingdom fizzled out disappointingly – proving Enoch Powell's old line about political careers equally applies to careers in management (unless, of course, your name happens to be Mick O'Dwyer) – but overall must be considered a success.
There's the Christy Ring success of 2011, of course, but perhaps even more crucially there's those three All Ireland Under 21 successes in succession ('09, '10, '11). Victories that laid the foundation for this current blooming in fortunes for the green and gold in the small ball game.
"No," said Meyler with certainty when asked if Kerry's current success was a surprise.
"[Colm] Harty and Darragh [O'Connell] and those, they're all good hurlers. Bryan Murphy we brought him through the Under 21 team I think we won three Under 21s in-a-row and they were all playing in that period.
"They were all good players and now they're starting to mature as 22, 23, 24 year olds. That was the whole idea that time and they're coming through. Seán Weir at wing-back, Brendan Brosnan, Shane Nolan, they're all there you know."
Coming face-to-face with some of his own handiwork will give Meyler both insight and motivation. If there's anybody who knows not to take this Kerry team lightly it's Meyler. After the game in Tralee his players weren't likely to anyway.
For Kelly and Kerry there's realy nothing to lose on Sunday. Win and they're heroes, lose and they've still made a huge amount of progress this past few months. Lose and they'll still be set up nicely for their Christy Ring Cup campaign.
And if they go out and play their own game, unburndened by the type of expectation that's certain to attach itself to Carlow, who's to stay they can't triumph? Not us. We learned long ago not to doubt what Kelly and co are capable of.
After the game in Stack Park, Meyler said he felt it was a poor game played at not a very high standard. That's not quite true though. Okay the pitch was a little heavy – that's not going to be a problem in Semple Stadium – but Kerry played some really good hurling in that game.
In the first half especially so. They move the ball well and at pace. Forwards get into good positions, open for the pass. They fight like dogs and back each other up. They play as a team. To us that's good hurling. Carlow didn't match it and were beaten as a result.
Still Kerry will need to up their game from that day. The question marks over Mikey Boyle's participation are just the type of headache a manager doesn't need. Boyle has been crucial in this latest renaissance. A Kerry team without his ball-winning ability would be a Kerry greatly diminished.
The return from injury of Tom Murnane could be huge, however. At either centre or full-back he will, if Kelly opts to start him, have a huge role to play. If it were up to us he'd start at centre-back on the returning Coady – Jason Casey has been doing a more than adequate job at full-back. Darren Dineen, meanwhile, could be redeployed to midfield or half-forward in Boyle's absence.
After a couple of games where he's experimented, Kelly is going to have to show his full hand on Sunday. Whether it will be good enough to do the business is open to question. Do we think Kerry can? Yes. Do we think they will? On the balance of probabilities, we suspect Carlow will win the day.