Thursday 14 December 2017

Rebels still not the finished article

THE 'real' championship might still be two months away, but this weekend's big menu of football can whet the appetite. Last weekend's fare was completely eclipsed by the hurling, but Cork and Kerry should reverse that on Sunday when they meet in Killarney.

Outside of the obvious rivalry, gauging the stakes in this fixture is tricky as it raises a number of questions. Obviously neither side fancies the circuitous route to the quarter-finals, but given their recent history, it will be intriguing to see who is the hungrier.

We know Conor counihan's Cork are a physically imposing outfit who, unfortunately for them, crack when they face Kerry in Croke Park, despite doing consistently well against their rivals in Munster. Last year they blew Kerry away in the replay in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

So, will Cork take the foot off the pedal, even subconsciously, this year in the hope there will be more in the tank later in the summer should they meet again? Did Tipp have similar notions in the hurling last Sunday? And will the psychological scarring that seems to occur almost annually in Croke Park start to affect the Rebels outside of HQ?

Kerry won the league last year and looked incredibly flat in the Munster championship. Cork cruised to league success -- will they now similarly take a dip? How will Kerry cope without the presence of Darragh Ó Sé, who was always pivotal against the old enemy?

After seeing Kerry against Tipp we know they are moving better than they normally are at this point of the season. There seems to be a feeling in the camp that last year's gamble won't pay off this time around.

Kieran Donaghy's return to full fitness is a massive boost, but it must be countered by injuries to key players and the loss of a veritable galaxy of stars last season.


I fancied Cork to win last year and do so again in this campaign, but I can't ignore the fact that we're not dealing with the finished article. Their performance against Limerick in last year's Munster final and their rudderless attempt to break down Kerry's massed defence in the second half of the All-Ireland final are worrying aspects in a team that are favourites to win the Sam Maguire this year.

The Limerick display is a concern because it suggests that motivation might falter if Cork were to go on a magical mystery tour through the backdoor. Kerry diced with humiliation on a number of occasions last season, but ultimately proved that there's no substitute for experience when it comes to close scrapes. On paper, Cork should steamroll any backdoor opposition, but there's always a nagging concern about how you might fare on a soggy summer's evening in Clones or Castlebar.

It promises to be a fascinating battle, one which will hopefully live up to the billing. After a non-descript start to the championship, we need a belter of a game.

Given that Cork are the most impressive side around at the moment, I'm going to stick with them for Sunday, as there is no evidence that their form has dipped. Reports from the camp and the challenge circuit are all positive.

Kieran McGeeney's Kildare have added huge interest to the championship the past two seasons and there will be a lot of attention on their performance against Louth in Navan tomorrow evening.

While I expect Kildare to progress, I was impressed with aspects of Louth's performance against Longford, particularly their long-range point scoring, a useful skill to apply against a packed defence.

Given the controversy about stupid rule changes, wouldn't it be great to see two points awarded for a point kicked outside of a certain zone or a free, something which could counter a swarmed defence, while also encouraging one of the most attractive skills in the game.

And I'm not coming down on good defending and good tackling. Nor am I castigating managers for their tactics. But it is important to nurture the spectacle of the game -- and the way to do that is not trying to stop handpassing or by meddling with the technical rules in a committee room. Can you imagine how we're going to cope trying to stop our U-10s from crossing the line for sideline kicks?

We should go for the big change. Scores encourage positive play, so encourage sides to take more scores -- five points for a goal even. I've no doubt players will buy into the changes, something which they are not doing right now.

Kildare's league run was disappointing as many expected them to push on for promotion following last year's impressive championship displays. But injuries have clearly hampered McGeeney's preparations, and may continue to during the early stages of the championship.

Still, Kildare are a different prospect now, well drilled and more experienced and that should carry them through comfortably.

It might not be as straightforward for Mayo, as their trip to Markievicz Park tomorrow looks fraught with danger given the contrasting displays in the two league finals. Unfortunately for a developing Sligo team, the potential for an upset is almost too obvious.

These are two sides still quite a distance apart in terms of league football and Mayo possess far more quality. Outside of their league final nightmare, Mayo had a very impressive league campaign and having had six weeks to recover, they should get back on track by overcoming Kevin Walsh's side.

John O'Mahony has reacted to the Croke Park debacle by making five changes for this game and he will have covered all the bases.

The return of Dennis Glennon and Dessie Dolan to the Westmeath panel augurs well for new boss Pat Flanagan and it should help stop the rot and give them a chance to rebuild.

But it could be too late to resist Wicklow's form. Mick O'Dwyer's teams are all about momentum and Wicklow impressed against a Carlow side that were expected to put up a good show in the first round.

Leighton Glynn is an inspirational figure up front and I expect him and Wicklow to prosper in Tullamore on Sunday and book a semi-final spot against probably Kildare.

There's little separating Armagh and Monaghan and the game won't be for the faint-hearted in Casement on Sunday. It's also a bloody difficult fixture to call. Armagh have the form, but we know just how difficult Monaghan can be to overcome. Now under the added guidance of Paul Grimley, I expect they will be an even tougher nut to crack.

Betting men might be attracted to the 15/2 on offer for a draw in normal time, but I'm inclined to favour Armagh on the basis of their match against Derry. Paddy O'Rourke has an effective system with Aaron Kernan cleverly creating space in front of Steven McDonnell.

Last but not least, is the other battle for a place in the Munster final and a rematch of the very entertaining Division 4 final. Limerick's experience probably gives them a slight edge here, but it would be a great novelty and a huge boost for football in the region if Waterford were to book a place in the decider.

But experience is essential in championship and Limerick will reach the final again.

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