Friday 23 August 2019

Colm O'Rourke: 'Kerry primed to strike with Mayo running on empty'

Mayo’s Donal Vaughan celebrates a late point against Galway. Photo: Sportsfile
Mayo’s Donal Vaughan celebrates a late point against Galway. Photo: Sportsfile
Michael Newman could have suffered a very serious injury last weekend. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

The games go on. From a kind of league format in the provincial championship where there was always the second chance saloon, to a knockout system in the qualifiers, and now back to a league in the Super 8 and then back again to knockout in the semi final and final. It's all very confusing. Tyrone set a record last year in that they lost three championship matches. Anyway, it is all academic as Sherlock Holmes might say, because whoever wins won't worry about the hoops they have had to jump through.

One thing struck me again last Sunday in Portlaoise. Michael Newman could have had a very serious injury after scoring Meath's second goal. In palming in the ball he was shunted on to the post, and if he had hit his head it could have been catastrophic. I have advocated many times that posts should be padded. The cost involved is minimal. Sooner or later someone will be killed and it could be a young player whose skull would be less resistant to an impact.

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The fallout would be severe. How could anyone defend a situation where a serious risk to health and safety was not dealt with? It is always better to move before there is a serious accident. Mickey Newman is a very lucky man. The GAA at central level should issue an edict that all clubs and county grounds should have the goalposts padded, not to the extent of those in rugby but enough to take the worst of an impact.

The big game today is in Killarney. The travelling circus that doubles as Mayo comes to town. A new system with big games during the summer in all towns would be a winner. The only thing I regret from the Super 8 draw is that Meath are not going to Killarney with some of the other games at home. There is nothing quite like a big match in Killarney on a nice summer's day.

Mayo have already beaten Kerry twice this year. The first win was in Tralee on a night when you really would want to dislike a dog to leave him outside. It was windy, cold and raining. Then the restless army of Mayo supporters invaded Croke Park for the league final and this time got to see a Mayo captain lifting a cup in the Hogan Stand. They celebrated loudly. Proper order too. Now they go seeking the treble over Kerry. This is the hardest of the three.

Two of Mayo's best players from the earlier encounters were Matthew Ruane in both Tralee and Dublin and Diarmuid O'Connor in the league final. Neither play today and the replacements are not anything like their standard. Since the defeat by Roscommon, Mayo have been carried along on a wave of emotion. The supporters have willed them on but this won't win any games from now on. Perhaps Mayo feel they have Kerry's measure. Don't bet on it.

Kerry were poor in the Munster final. Poor in the sense that people felt they would win easily but Cork's performance suggests the Rebels have been rapidly improving, which was in evidence again in Croke Park last night before Dublin went on to administer a dose of reality.

Still, Kerry from midfield up are formidable. An attack of Geaney, O'Shea, Clifford, O'Donoghue and O'Brien is as good as any. However, the well-documented problems in the full-back line are undermining confidence. If Eamonn Fitzmaurice was around now he would be getting hammered so Peter Keane better get his problems sorted before the natives get restless - they can turn ugly too if they are not contenders.

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The ongoing travails at the back for Kerry have become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Everyone now thinks that if they put enough pressure on the Kerry defence it will collapse. Some day it won't. I think it will be today. No Kerryman will want to get skinned in his own back yard; pride is a great driver.

Obviously somebody has to mark Darren Coen and stop him kicking long-range points, something neither Armagh nor Galway managed. He is proving one of the forwards of the championship but Mayo need too much of their best attacking options coming from the back through Higgins, Keegan, and Durcan. Lee Keegan will probably go on Seán O'Shea again after the 'welcome to the real world' in the league final. Senior football is a tough station and O'Shea needs to be able to look after himself, sooner rather than later. I expect he will.

The loser of this game faces a very uncertain future and it means that this will be fiery, especially as Kerry probably feel that they were pushed around a bit in both earlier games. What did they expect? Mayo are a big physical side and they are entitled to use this power. Yet Kerry are not slow learners.

Mayo have really fought hard to get here but they are like a climber nearing the top of Everest, they are getting into the red zone. I suspect they are running out of road. Bravery only brings a team so far. Sooner or later, the absence of so many outstanding players is felt. I think it will be today. Kerry to win.

In Ballybofey, all known form points to Donegal and unlike the league final when they eased off in the second half when they had the game in the bag, this time they will be thinking about score difference as three teams could easily end up on four points in this group. Of course the object of the exercise will be to win first, and if there is cream to be had then fine but any player who goes out thinking about anything other than winning can get a severe shock.

Meath will reflect on the two games earlier in the year. In the first match in the league they were the better team and in the Division 2 final played their best football of the year in the first half. Then they promptly played their worst in the second half. Bringing on Neil McGee was certainly a factor but Donegal then and now are two different animals. Paddy McBrearty is also back and it was obvious that Donegal were building for the championship whereas promotion for Meath at the time was a huge thing.

Last Sunday's game in Portlaoise was a great tussle between two evenly-matched teams. Clare are hard to shake off and they have great heart and determination. Yet there was a huge number of mistakes and poor use of possession which Donegal will focus on.

First of all, they will certainly go after Meath's kick-outs as Meath are not a particularly big team compared to Donegal. So they will ensure there are no short kick-outs and hope to win a lot of ball in the air. Meath need new tactics to cope with this and will have to take chances with shorter kick-outs.

Then Donegal will ensure that Donal Keogan and Pádraic Harnan are tracked when they make runs forward. Donegal like all others spend a lot of time on video analysis and this will stick out. The other side of this is that it will give more Meath players room so they have to take the pressure off Keogan in particular. He is the willing horse who takes most of the load.

Meath need to win a share of Shaun Patton's kick-outs, something most teams are finding very difficult to do. In many ways, Patton has it easy; he has a brilliant, accurate kick-out but he also has a gang of giants waiting for every ball so it does not have to be 50-50. They are all good fielders too, Jason McGee, Hugh McFadden, Michael Langan, Michael Murphy. Meath have no such options. Then they have McBrearty and Brennan - who scored a brilliant goal in the league final. This is a very talented team.

Donegal are now at a point where they can tackle anyone with confidence. All the moving parts are in place: size, speed through the likes of Ryan McHugh and skill everywhere throughout the team. It is a tall order for Meath in their first game in the Super 8 and playing Offaly, Laois, Carlow and Clare won't prepare the players for this. Meath should try to go for goals as much as possible and forget about points as this could unsettle Donegal. Yet anything other than a Donegal win is unlikely.

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