Thursday 23 November 2017

Kingdom's all-Munster route to the All-Ireland

Qualifier quirk means Kerry could play Limerick and Cork twice to reach final

Colm Cooper leads the Kerry team in the pre-match
parade against Limerick at the Gaelic Grounds back
in June – the Kingdom's skipper with be doing the
same thing tomorrow, but this time in Croke Park
Colm Cooper leads the Kerry team in the pre-match parade against Limerick at the Gaelic Grounds back in June – the Kingdom's skipper with be doing the same thing tomorrow, but this time in Croke Park

WHEN an extra fence was added to the All-Ireland football championship course 10 years ago, the situation in which Kerry now find themselves could never have been anticipated.

They are already booked in to play Limerick for a second time in this year's championship tomorrow, while there's more than a distinct possibility that they will be in Croke Park on September 18, having met Munster opposition only (they beat Tipperary in the first round) en route to the final.

Kerry play Limerick for a second time in eight weeks tomorrow and, if they live up to their 1/16 odds and book a semi-final place, there's every chance they will be meeting Cork for the second time in seven weeks next month.

Cork must, of course, beat Mayo tomorrow for that to happen, but it, too, looks probable. Seasonal double-ups are quite common in the enduring Kerry-Cork saga since the introduction of the qualifiers, but for one of them to reach the final, beating Munster opposition only, would be unprecedented.

It's a quirk in the system, but whether it bestows an advantage on Kerry, who, unlike Cork, avoided the qualifiers, depends on your viewpoint. Many would argue that a format that permits such a powerful force as Kerry to reach the All-Ireland final by, in effect, winning the Munster championship twice is deeply flawed.

However, Kerry will contend that few would fancy having to meet the reigning All-Ireland champions twice in the one campaign.

Of course, the first clash was merely to decide which of them would have to play an extra game to reach the All-Ireland quarter-finals. That chore fell to Cork who dealt with it quite easily against Down last Saturday.

Having beaten Limerick by 11 points in the Munster semi-final, it was certainly a stroke of luck for Kerry that they were again paired with Maurice Horan's squad in the quarter-finals when more dangerous sharks like Kildare and Tyrone (in the likely event of them beating Roscommon) were swimming in the draw drum.

Strangely, Kerry couldn't draw Cork because of the regulation which prevents provincial re-matches in the All-Ireland quarter-finals, but there's no restriction on second meetings between counties who met in the earlier provincial rounds. Why the distinction?

Drawing Kerry wasn't exactly what Limerick wanted when they could have been paired with Dublin, Mayo or Donegal. Dublin would be regarded as the toughest of the trio, but at least Limerick have no negative history with them.

It's different with Kerry, whom Limerick have beaten only once (on the pitch as opposed to a walkover) from 31 championship clashes, whereas they have little experience of playing against the other three. Mayo would probably have been their first choice of opponents on the basis that they won the lowest grade provincial championship.

There's a solid case to be made for keeping counties who have already met in the provincial championships apart in the qualifiers and the All-Ireland quarter/semi-finals. Apart from anything else, it increases the novelty factor, pairing counties who have met infrequently -- or perhaps not even at all -- in the championship over the years.

In the early days of the qualifiers, there was no restriction on the qualifier draw, but that was eventually changed on the basis that the greater the variety, the more interesting the pairings.

It was a sensible approach, but it was changed back again a few seasons ago so that teams who clashed in the provinces could meet in the qualifiers and/or quarter-finals.

Already this season, Kildare and Meath have met twice and Kerry and Limerick will repeat tomorrow.

However, restrictions continue to apply in hurling. It was pre-ordained last Sunday that once Dublin beat Limerick they would be playing Tipperary in the semi-final, irrespective of the Galway-Waterford result.

Why the difference? If it's right to avoid repeats in hurling why are they allowed in football? It's yet another of the little peculiarities which apply in the GAA.

The championship format has nothing to do with Kerry, but there's no denying that the ball bounced very favourably for them in the quarter-final draw, certainly in terms of facilitating their passage to the semi-finals.

Beyond that, who knows? In fact, it may then turn out to be a disadvantage as they will have reached the last four without taking on anybody outside Munster, where all but Cork and Kerry were in Divisions 3 and 4 of the Allianz League this year.

Kerry were determined to stick to the championship high road this season, avoiding qualifiers if at all possible.

The manner in which they hit Cork with awesome power for the first 45 minutes of the Munster final underlined the extent of their zeal to take the shortest route to the quarter-finals and while they had to withstand a fierce backlash on the home stretch, they held firm.

Meanwhile, Cork had to re-focus for the fourth round qualifiers, managing it most impressively against Down last week. It leaves them facing Mayo, who are still a work-in-progress. However, they are on an upward curve, so if Cork win, they will be in exactly the right frame of mind for the semi-final, having beaten opposition from Ulster and Connacht since losing the Munster final.

Kerry would always feel that once they reach an All-Ireland semi-final, the route by which they got there is irrelevant.

In fairness, they have plenty of experience with timing their run to perfection in August, not least in the Mick O'Dwyer era when their dominance of Cork -- and the rest of Munster -- lasted for so long and was so pronounced that Kerry were only properly warmed up for the All-Ireland semi-final.

Indeed, in 1980 the Munster Council decided that because Kerry had hammered Clare by 9-21 to 1-9 in Milltown Malbay a year earlier, they should be allowed directly into the final against Cork, which they won.

They later beat Offaly and Roscommon, landing them the All-Ireland title off three wins, which is impossible nowadays.

However, the new system throws up its own eccentricities, not least that Kerry can reach the All-Ireland final by winning five games against Munster opposition.

That's assuming, of course, that Limerick, Cork or Mayo don't intervene.

Irish Independent

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