ALL-IRELAND SFC SEMI-FINAL
KILDARE v DOWN
(Croke Park, Tomorrow 3.30,
live RTé2/BBC2 NI)
THERE is no hard and fast rule for trying to second-guess what's about to happen in an All-Ireland semi-final.
Proven pedigree, the vagaries of form, momentum, recent encounters between the combatants and the weight of history are all thrown up in the air; you let the balls land and then decide.
Even then, you may only be going on a hunch.
Which brings us to Kildare versus Down. There are no rules -- hard, fast or otherwise -- to separate this pair and that's what makes tomorrow's collision so damned intriguing.
p Proven pedigree? Well, since neither county has come close to All-Ireland senior deliverance in the past decade, you may surmise that both are very much in the 'unproven' category.
Yes, you'll have several Down graduates from their triumphant 2005 minor team on the field tomorrow -- not to mention the U21 crew overhauled at the very end of last year's All-Ireland U21 final. Against that, Kildare have been an impressive work in progress under Kieran McGeeney, reaching back-to-back quarter-finals before winning one at the third time of asking.
p The vagaries of form? Well, in summary, both teams looked in serious trouble as they exited their provincial championships. Both teams have since embarked on thrilling runs through the back door, finding form, momentum and arguably their strongest line-ups via trial-and-error.
p Recent encounters? True, Down came to Newbridge on the first Sunday of February and inflicted an 11-point "hammering" (McGeeney's choice of words). You may argue that's a pretty emphatic pointer ... yet the first round of any spring campaign should never be invested with much significance, even more so when you consider how Kildare have improved since the league.
p The weight of history? What history! They've never met in head-to-head summer battle before. Down may have the greater track record of winning All-Irelands and maybe that explains the county's ability to spring from seemingly nowhere in the space of one season.
And, yet, somehow we can't see the Leinster men succumbing through inhibition or awe of Down's so-called tradition. The more experienced members of this Kildare squad wouldn't fear Down because the recent league head-to-head, this year's collapse aside, slightly favours them: between '03 and '07 we had two Lilywhite wins, two draws and one narrow Down success.
Tomorrow has the look of another close-run thing, one that is likely to be decided by a whole host of other imponderables.
How will the four-week hiatus affect two sides who had the pedal to the floor for all of July?
You'd imagine that, physically, both sides would have been crying out for a break -- especially Kildare after their unbroken six-week run -- and yet their barnstorming finish against Meath suggests otherwise.
For both sides, the long wait for the last-four has the potential to suck away some of their earlier momentum.
Another thing ... can Kildare avoid their now trademark slow start? They survived and ultimately thrived against Derry, Monaghan and Meath, but any more narcolepsy at the throw-in could be fatal when you factor in how Down exploded from the traps against both Tyrone and Kerry.
Yet, even against a Kerry team weakened by suspensions and with midfield problems all year, Down still endured a worrying blip in the midst of that famous win.
For 17 minutes midway through the first half, they failed to score and lost eight kickouts on the spin.
Down were able to survive that wobble partly because of Killian Young's disallowed goal, more so because their sprightly forwards had the confidence and accuracy to punish Kerry's ageing defence in concerted scoring bursts.
Martin Clarke, back from Australia and pulling the strings from deep with his astute left boot, has made the biggest difference all of this season.
Clarke doubles as their leading marksman but it's the spread of potential scorers that makes Down such a formidable threat: the perennial Benny Coulter and the younger Mark Poland and Paul McComiskey all flourished at different stages of the Kerry game; Daniel Hughes has sparkled in earlier rounds; Ronan Murtagh offers another predatory option off the bench (just ask Sligo).
Still, for all Down's score-getting potential, the Kildare defence has improved beyond all recognition since their Louth disaster -- epitomised by the man-marking performances of newcomer Peter Kelly and Emmet Bolton's reinvention in the half-back line.
Their new-found solidity is one reason why this observer has a slight preference for the born-again Lilies.
We won't call it a hunch, more a gut instinct that sprung from watching all four quarter-finals on that memorable Bank Holiday weekend. Down and Dublin may have been the big giant-killers but, of all four winners, Kildare produced the most compelling form.
Having survived Meath's initial aerial bombardment, and the shock of falling six points down, Kildare were magnificent in storming back to win by eight.
Nor was it a once-off; Derry and Monaghan may have performed poorly but they were both dismissed with a conviction that suggested Kildare are now a better team than last year's last-eight model.
At times, it's true, their tendency to shoot from anywhere can result in an ugly glut of wides.
Even then, though, they tend to create enough chances to compensate and this is reflected in their summer average of 1-16 per game.
Just like Down, they have a wide array of forwards who can hurt you: Johnny Doyle is second only to Bernard Brogan in the SFC top-scoring stakes; James Kavanagh has flourished in his new inside role; Eoghan O'Flaherty has looked a class act over the past one-and-a-half games; Alan Smith is capable of kicking more points but he is a proven goalscorer; even the floating Eamonn O'Callaghan, depending on where he plays, can keep the scoreboard ticking over.
Ultimately, even if both attacks look pretty well matched, we reckon two pivotal areas might just swing it for Kildare.
Firstly, the possession scrap in the middle-eight. There remains a strong suspicion that Dermot Earley won't start for Kildare and he would obviously constitute a major loss -- but one they might overcome if Hugh Lynch can reprise his Meath performance. They have other central options, too, with Rob Kelly reportedly flying again after his injury-wrecked year.
Moreover, Ambrose Rogers' own knee injury travails may prove even more damaging to Down while our belief is that Kildare's voracious work ethic and fitness could see them wresting a lion's share of the ball.
In that scenario, the Down defence may be tested like never before.
In the past, this has been perceived as the team's Achilles heel and James McCartan has responded by using a sweeper this season, while Kevin McKernan's deployment at No6 has been another key factor in their improvement here.
But we suspect they might eventually crack, faced by a Lilywhite attack still full of running and coming in waves down the finishing straight.
ODDS: Kildare 4/5, Draw 15/2, Down 11/8
KILDARE: S McCormack; P Kelly, H McGrillen, A Mac Lochlainn; M O'Flaherty, E Bolton, B Flanagan; D Flynn, D Earley; J Kavanagh, P O'Neill, E O'Flaherty; J Doyle, A Smith, E Callaghan.
DOWN: B McVeigh; D McCartan, D Gordon, D Rafferty; D Rooney, K McKernan, C Garvey; P Fitzpatrick, K King; D Hughes, M Poland, P McComiskey; B Coulter, J Clarke, M Clarke.