Kerry dominance doing no one good
Paul Brennan suggests the Munster Championship needs a serious reboot even if that means a Cork win on Saturday
On Sunday Dublin will win their 14th Leinster SFC title since 2005 and their ninth in a row since 2011. The utter dominance of their provincial championship - they're not just winning games, they're obliterating all opposition up to and including the finals - hasn't done Dublin any harm with respect to the bigger goal, i.e. winning the All-Ireland title, but the question still must be asked: at what cost to the Leinster Championship?
At the start of this latest winning sequence Dublin beat Wexford by three points in the 2011 final and a year later they had just three points to spare over Meath. Since then Dublin's margin of Leinster final victories has been 7, 16, 13, 15, 9 and 18 points. They play Meath on Sunday and while there's a sense that this is an improving Meath team, anything other than another double-digit Dublin win would be a surprise.
Kerry's recent dominance of the Munster Championship hasn't quite reached Dublin levels just yet but the expectation is that Kerry will complete a seventh consecutive provincial title on Saturday, and given the fortunes of Cork of late a double-digit margin of victory is expected in Pairc Ui Chaoimh. Kerry's Munster final winning margins since this run started has been 2 points in 2013 then 12 points, 5, 10, 11 and 17 last year, with a draw in 2015 against Cork thrown in for good measure.
If there is an obvious drop off in the attendances showing up for Dublin games in Leinster in the last couple of years there seems to be a similar trend in Munster. It's not necessarily that there are less Dubs or Kerry people going through the turnstiles for provincial finals, but perhaps more a case that the opposition supporters are simply not interested in coming out to see their county hammered in a one-sided non-event.
Twelve months ago 27,764 were in Pairc Ui Chaoimh to watch Kerry's minor and seniors teams cruise past Clare and Cork respectively, and the Munster Council will do well if they see 30,000 go through the gates on Saturday evening. The 2017 Munster final attendance - in Killarney - was 31,836, which is a along way short of the 40,000-plus crowds the Munster Football Final was regularly drawing a little over a decade ago.
Ticket prices and associated costs with attending these games, as well as live television broadcasts, and the prospect of following one's county into the Super 8s and beyond, are certainly contributory factors in falling attendances but surely it's the lack of a meaningful contest that is the main reason people are staying away. The Cork supporters were heading for the exits 12 months ago long before the final whistle, and with the team subsequently relegated out of Division One last March it would take a real die-hard supporter to travel in from west Cork on Saturday in anticipation of another heavy defeat for the Rebels. It's doubtful too many Kerry folk felt they got value for money either last June in Pairc Ui Chaoimh.
As for Kerry dominance on the pitch and what use or not it is to them in the bigger picture is another matter. Hindsight is 20/20 but one wonders had Kerry not blown past Clare and Cork last year with so much as a glove laid on them, would they have been better served going up against Galway in their first Super 8 game in Croke Park.
There's always an argument for and against a team arriving at a final or any really tough fixture battle hardened or fresh. Right now Dublin are making a pretty convincing argument that arriving at the business end of the All-Ireland series relatively unscathed and fresh from a Leinster stroll has done them no harm with regard to getting over the winning line in September.
However, if Dublin are the exception to nearly every convention right now, it might be more instructive to go back to the old adage that stood in Munster for so long: a great Kerry team always needed a great Cork team in Munster, and vice versa.
Of the 10 All-Ireland Finals Kerry have played in since the advent of the Qualifiers in 2001, four have been via those Qualifiers, with Kerry being crowned All-Ireland champions in 2006 and 2009 without having won the Munster title that year.
Even the fact that Kerry and Cork contested the 2007 and 2009 All-Ireland Finals and Cork were All-Ireland champions in 2010 illustrates just how strong both counties were in the previous decade.
There was a time not so long ago when it was, in some respects, tough to get excited about a Kerry v Cork fixture such was the proliferation of them. There were seasons when they met in the McGrath Cup, the National League, the Munster Championship and again in the All-Ireland Series and, frankly, it all began to get a little jaded. But at least those fixtures had a spiky rivalry about them because the teams were so evenly matched.
On any given day those Cork teams from 2001 to 2010 could - and often did - beat one of the best ever Kerry teams, and beat them well. No one wanted to miss a Munster semi-final or final between the pair of them back in the mid-Noughties for fear of missing something seismic.
There have been suggestions in some quarters that it would be no harm if Kerry were to be beaten next Saturday - and those suggestions have come from within Kerry. Notwithstanding the minefield that the Round 4 Qualifiers could be - Mayo, Tyrone, Monaghan, Kildare all potentially lie in wait for a beaten provincial finalist - would a Qualifier for Kerry and a Munster title for Cork be the worst thing in the world.
Certainly the Munster Council could wish for worse. For all the strides that Clare have made under Colm Collins and Tipperary's recent growth under the now departed Liam Kearns, Munster is still a two-horse race. Yes, Limerick and Tipperary have contested Munster finals this decade but only once - in 2016 - has one of the other four beaten Kerry or Cork in the provincial championship since 2003.
The Munster Championship is Kerry v Cork and when that fixture doesn't fizz then the whole things falls flat. No competitive rivalry means no public interest, which means falling attendances and less income.
The Leinster Council and even the Dubs themselves must be hoping Meath give the Boys in Blue a right rattle on Sunday.