Qualifiers bring southern comfort
Published 02/07/2011 | 05:00
BY 3.30 tomorrow afternoon, either the red and white or green and gold flags will be fluttering proudly above Fitzgerald Stadium, Killarney, while the other flies at half-mast.
By 3.45, either Jack O'Connor or Conor Counihan will be explaining that, while it's always great to win the Munster title, a huge improvement is required for the All-Ireland championship push. The other will acknowledge that his side were beaten by a "better team on the day" while promising a renewed drive in the qualifiers.
By next week, people will be wondering if the game was an All-Ireland final rehearsal and by midday on September 18 there's every chance that Cork and Kerry supporters will be converging on Croke Park for the ultimate shoot-out. Alternatively, they could meet in the semi-final, as has happened five times (including a replay) since the opening of the 'back door' 10 years ago.
When the qualifier system was first mooted in the summer of 2000 it was seen as having many plus points, led by the certainty that all counties would play at least two championship games. However, sceptics argued if it would bestow a clear advantage on stronger counties, while also devaluing provincial championships.
The first claim was validated in the very first season under the new system when Galway won the All-Ireland title after losing the Connacht semi-final.
Since then, Tyrone (2005, 2008), Kerry (2006, 2009) and Cork (2010) have won the All-Ireland title through the 'back door', while Armagh (2003), Kerry (2002, 2008), Cork (2007) and Down (2010) were beaten finalists via the same route.
Notice anything about that?
Kerry and Cork have made very good use of the qualifiers, as was always likely to be the case. Of course, they would argue that as two of the major forces in football it's appropriate that they would both get a chance to take their cases to Croke Park rather than be denied the opportunity because of the restrictive nature of the All-Ireland format as it applied up to 2001.
Cork suffered most under the old system, as Kerry hold a two-to-one advantage in Munster championship clashes between the counties. It left Cork in a frustrating bind, not good enough to beat Kerry in two out of every three years but sufficiently strong to launch a major drive against contenders from the three other provinces if the opportunity was there.
It was especially disappointing for Cork during 1975-86 when Kerry dominated the football scene in a manner never previously achieved.
With the exception of 1983, when Tadhg Murphy's late goal snatched a dramatic, last-minute win over Kerry in the Munster final, Cork had to live in the shadow of their giant neighbours who, in the words of Mick O'Dwyer "always wanted to keep our great, big, ugly thumbs pressing down on them."
As Cork's championship season ended in July year after year, they saw the likes of Armagh, Roscommon, Offaly, Galway and Tyrone, counties they would have fancied themselves to beat, head for Croke Park on All-Ireland final day.
So the qualifiers have been extremely good for Cork. Interestingly, it has also led to an improved strike rate against Kerry in Munster, even if Cork haven't maintained it at Croke Park.
The qualifiers have been generous to Kerry, too, enabling them to re-launch seasons where they couldn't quite figure out the Cork puzzle in Munster.
Kerry have never lost a qualifier game and while Cork's record isn't as good (they lost to Galway in 2001, Roscommon in 2003, Fermanagh in 2004) they have got the hang of it since then.
Cork and Kerry are now the envy of the rest of the country as the pair continue to control Munster which, in years when they are drawn on opposite sides, means that from the previous October they know that, in all probability, one of them will be in the following year's All-Ireland quarter-final while the other will be in the last 12 . That's quite a comfort to take into training on cold January nights, and contrasts with the experience of counties in the other provinces where the standard is more even.
Donegal, for instance, had to beat Antrim, Cavan and Tyrone to reach the Ulster final this year whereas Cork had to beat Clare and Waterford, both of whom they played at home.
And if the dominant position enjoyed locally by Cork and Kerry wasn't enough advantage, the timing of the provincial championships also suits them as Munster stages its final on the first Sunday in July. That gives the losers three weeks to re-group for the fourth-round qualifiers, in contrast to the Connacht and Ulster runners-up, who are forced back out six days after losing their finals.
The big fear the Munster Council had about the qualifiers was that they would reduce interest in the traditionally lucrative Cork-Kerry clashes, on the basis that they were merely warm-ups for the bigger action at Croke Park later on. Indeed, crowds did drop for a few years, but picked up again.
And with Cork heading into tomorrow's final as All-Ireland champions, it was always going to send ticket sales soaring, as there's nothing Kerry would prefer more than to send the Rebels back home knee-deep in uncertainty.
Cork haven't beaten Kerry in seven attempts at Croke Park since 2002 so they couldn't be very confident if they met them there again this year. Mind you, it's an itch that Cork badly need to scratch, preferably after beating Kerry in Killarney for the first time since 1995.
Despite the likelihood that whoever loses between Cork and Kerry will still make considerable progress, the intensity of their Munster final clashes has in no way diminished. That will certainly be the case tomorrow as the sides jostle for the shortest route to the All-Ireland quarter-final, plus the psychological prize of out-witting their greatest rivals.
Ultimately, though, only a one-sided affair, which is highly improbable, could seriously undermine either side's All-Ireland ambitions. Instead, it will be a raw, passionate, gruelling battle, fought with as much fury as both sides can muster.
The winners will top the All-Ireland betting but the losers won't be far behind. That's the beauty of the qualifier system for the two counties best placed of all to benefit from it.