Buoyant Rebels itching for a Croker crack at Kingdom
THE tables turned 180 degrees in Munster last year when Kerry won the early-season duel between the province's big two but Cork were top of the pile in September. Before 2010, Cork had lost just once to Kerry in six previous Munster championship outings, only for the Kingdom to come alive when they hit Croke Park.
That changed last year when Kerry were caught cold by Down in the All-Ireland quarter-final which, on reflection, might have been expected.
They went into that game without arguably their two most influential players of that campaign in Tomas O Se and Paul Galvin, while the Kingdom were still trying to replace the likes of Tommy Walsh, Tadhg Kennelly and the retired pair of Darragh O Se and Diarmuid Murphy. The absentees and defections meant that, for the defeat to Down, Jack O'Connor was without six of the team that started the 2009 All-Ireland final.
Declan O'Sullivan has since admitted that Kerry's hunger levels weren't where they should have been that day against Down.
"Maybe our preparation mightn't have been spot on. It's something that we have to look at. Even as players ourselves we have to look at our own preparation and our own hunger levels," conceded O'Sullivan.
With much of the side involved in six consecutive All-Ireland finals, captain Colm Cooper admits their age profile and 'miles on the clock' are a concern for Kerry, but there is no doubting the class of the established players.
However, what is of slight concern is that on the evidence of the league, it's difficult to see which of the new players blooded in the league have done enough to nail down a regular starting spot.
David Moran's loss to a cruciate injury, when he appeared to be moving well, once again throws the spotlight on Kerry's midfield resources. Seamus Scanlon was an ever-present in midfield for last year's championship but he had three different partners in Moran, Michael Quirke and Anthony Maher and that's where Cork appear to hold an advantage.
Conor Counihan essentially worked off four midfielders last year with Alan O'Connor, Aidan Walsh, Derek Kavanagh and Nicholas Murphy interchanging. Walsh was particularly impressive, blossoming from a nervous debut against the Kingdom to delivering what many people saw as a man-of-the-match performance in the All-Ireland final, although the official gong went to Daniel Goulding.
And with the big two on different sides of the draw, it appears the rest can do little to stop them clashing in the Munster final.
If Cork beat Clare in Pairc Ui Chaoimh on May 22, they'll face Waterford at home for a place in the decider. Kerry's route is slightly trickier as they need to beat John Evans' Tipperary in Killarney and then depose of Limerick in the Gaelic Grounds for an early-season shot at the Rebels.
But the most fascinating tie will come if the pair meet in Croke Park again. While Cork are worthy All-Ireland champions, they have yet to beat Kerry at HQ and if they could manage that on the way to back-to-back All-Ireland titles, they would have settled an old score.
Cork have seen some turnover in personnel. Kavanagh retired on medical advice with a richly deserved All-Ireland medal, while Paddy O'Shea, Kevin McMahon, John Hayes and Kieran O'Connor have left the squad.
However, the performance of their U-21s in the Munster final, where they hammered Kerry by 22 points, suggests there is plenty coming through, as Eoin Cadogan pointed out.
"To say that I made my debut in an All-Ireland final last year is funny because I have been there since 2007 coming off the bench," he said. "No one's place is secure. There is huge intensity in training and there are a few more lads to come back into it and we have so many players coming through -- look at the U-21 victory over Kerry -- but it's great."
Once again, Limerick will be expected to go closest to upsetting the duopoly that has lasted since 1992, when Clare shocked the football world, but relegation from Division 3 doesn't bode well. On the plus side, they have their key players back, including John Galvin.
They'll feel hard done by after last year's defeat to Kerry, where they had the Kingdom on the rack for long periods. Tomas O Se was lucky to finish that match -- he was suspended retrospectively -- and had he been dismissed as early as the 20th minute, Limerick might have ended a 114-year famine.
Clare will be the first to test Cork's mood and despite taking advantage of the parentage rule to recruit new talent, three wins from eight in Division 4 means it's difficult to make an argument for the Banner shocking the All-Ireland champions.
Waterford's league was also unkind as they made a quick return to Division 4 after last year's heroics, but a likely championship opener against Cork in Pairc Ui Chaoimh means they're heading for the back door.
Tipperary, the most progressive team in Munster in recent seasons, take on Kerry in their opener for the second year in a row, only this time they have to travel to Killarney. There was 12 points between the teams in Thurles last year and it's hard to see Evans' men overturning that dominance meaning that, once more, Cork and Kerry are on course for a Munster final showdown. But it's a Croke Park date that everyone wants to see.