Sunday 18 March 2018

Cork and Kerry battle to avoid last eight clash with Dublin

James O’Donoghue and James Loughrey will resume battle when Kerry play Cork again in Killarney on Sunday
James O’Donoghue and James Loughrey will resume battle when Kerry play Cork again in Killarney on Sunday
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Kerry v Cork is always a massive event on the GAA calendar, but the stakes have been raised even higher than usual for Saturday evening's Munster final replay by the preordained system of deciding on All-Ireland football quarter-final pairings.

Fermanagh or Westmeath await the winners in the last eight, while the losers face a round four qualifier against Kildare. And if they survive that test, they will meet All-Ireland favourites Dublin in the quarter-final on the first weekend in August.

That scenario emphasises the contrasting fortunes ahead for the winners and losers of Kerry v Cork, which makes Saturday's clash in Killarney so crucial.

It also has implications for Dublin, who will be playing Kerry, Cork or Kildare in the quarter-final. In all likelihood, it will be either Kerry or Cork, currently the second and fifth All-Ireland favourites.

Step up

That's quite a step up for Jim Gavin's squad after retaining the Leinster title for a fifth successive year, with average 20-point wins over Longford, Kildare and Westmeath, all of whom will be in Division 3 next year.

Kerry and Cork both beat Dublin in Division 1 this year. And while the Rebels later lost heavily to Dublin in the final, they remain among the top fancies for All-Ireland glory, a ranking enhanced by their good performance against Kerry last Sunday week.

Dublin beat Cork and Kerry in the 2013 All-Ireland quarter-final and semi-final, en route to winning the title.

The preordained quarter-final pairing arrangements were introduced last year as part of the amended qualifier draws, which separated counties who lost in the provinces into A and B groups.

That limited the range of possible opponents for each county and also ensured that the All-Ireland quarter-final pairings were linked to provinces in a Leinster/Munster and Connacht/Ulster split.

Thus, the runners-up in Leinster and Munster are, provided they win their Round 4 qualifier, drawn against the winners in those provinces. The same arrangement applies for Connacht and Ulster, who stage their finals next Sunday.

Donegal, Monaghan, Mayo, Sligo, Galway, Derry, Tipperary and Tyrone remain in contention for the four quarter-final slots from that side of the draw.

The winners of the Connacht (Mayo v Sligo) and Ulster (Donegal v Monaghan) finals qualify automatically for the last eight and will be joined by two of the other six.

Donegal (9/2) are the only one of the eight on that side of the draw ranked among the top All-Ireland contenders. Monaghan, the 2013 Ulster champions, are sixth favourites on 33/1, followed by Galway and Tyrone (50/1), Derry (66/1), Tipperary (100/1), Kildare and Sligo (125/1), Westmeath and Fermanagh (150/1).

Meanwhile, the prospect of direct entry to the quarter-finals against Westmeath or Fermanagh is a huge incentive for Cork and Kerry, especially when the alternatives are so much more demanding.

Fermanagh have done very well in the qualifiers, beating Antrim and Roscommon, but they earlier lost to Monaghan by ten points in the Ulster semi-final.

Westmeath impressed in Leinster with wins over Louth, Wexford and Meath but were well beaten by Dublin last Sunday, leaving an air of uncertainty as to how quickly they will recover.

Louth, Wexford and Meath were all beaten in last weekend's qualifier ties, raising further doubts about Westmeath's true stature in what is a season of transition.

All of which suggests that the Kerry-Cork winners will have a relatively easy passage into the All-Ireland semi-finals, where their opponents will be the Ulster champions or a Round 4 qualifier winner.

Kerry remain hot favourites (8/15) to beat Cork (9/4), which is somewhat surprising after coming so close to defeat last Sunday week.

Presumably, the confidence in Kerry is based on the assumption that Cork have blown their chance at a venue where they haven't won for 20 years.

There's also a perception that Kerry always improve for replays, but that's not borne out by recent experiences against Cork.

Next Saturday's game will be the sixth replay between the counties since 2002, with Cork having won three to Kerry's two of the previous five.

However, Cork's three wins were in Pairc Ui Chaoimh, which is now closed for business, pending redevelopment.

Cork's last replay win over Kerry in Killarney was in 1987, when a Billy Morgan-managed team ended the Kingdom's stranglehold on the Munster title.

There will be an added worry for next Saturday's losers, who head for qualifier action against Kildare a week later.

The 14-year history of the qualifiers shows that beaten provincial finalists have a dismal record in Round 4, when pressed into action a week later.

Indeed, that was one of the reasons the qualifier format was changed so as to protect beaten provincial finalists from six or seven-day turnarounds.

The 13-day wait for the Kerry-Cork replay hasn't made that possible on this occasion, which will greatly encourage Kildare, who beat Longford last Saturday.

And while that doesn't suggest that the Lilywhites are close to the level occupied by Kerry and Cork, the quick turnaround will still be a matter of concern for whichever of the southern giants find themselves on the qualifier trail by Saturday night.

Irish Independent

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