It won't be fever pitch but Dublin-Cork league final will contain some interesting pointers
We won't kid ourselves - today's Dublin-Cork Allianz League final is hardly the most enticing of appetisers before the tasty dish of championship arrives, but there are still some intriguing sub-plots.
Let's face it, this game hasn't exactly seized the imagination of the public. For a much-hyped semi-final double-bill, only a dismal 20,013 turned up and there may only be another 10,000 this afternoon.
Still, a couple of quotes in recent days have caught our attention. On making the hurling final against Cork, Derek McGrath was resolute in his determination to win that game - even though they meet Cork a few weeks later in the championship.
"Whatever shadow boxing any other team are doing, I don't think we're in a position to be able to shadow box with anyone in terms of our development," he said.
So while today's pairing is hardly going to reel them into HQ, it could nonetheless prove another solid foundation for the respective managers. Both counties, in fairness, follow the template created by league specialists Brian Cody and Jack O'Connor.
Cody, a serial league winner, used the spring to sharpen his team's claws and the internal jostling for selection handed them a clear edge. O'Connor loved how an extended league run brought him closer to championship tempo, delivering some stern tests before the Munster championship. He won the league three times and on each occasion Kerry landed an All-Ireland title.
Every team has attainable aspirations amid the four-division system. The leagues are no longer beefed-up training sessions and today Dublin and Cork will go for it. Every game matters to a team.
For Cork, banishing the memory of last year's league semi-final collapse is a definite aim. But there are other talking points to consider in a game that should give plenty of pointers towards the summer . . .
Brian Cuthbert accepted that last year's league semi-final defeat - and the manner of it - had an unsettling effect on his side. They found it hard to get back into their stride afterwards.
Cork roared 10 points in front. If it was a boxing contest, it may have been stopped. Amazingly, Dublin came back and forced a 17-point turnaround to come out on top by 2-20 to 2-13. It left a deep mark on Cork and the way they now play. Wide open and naive, that game - and the Munster final defeat to Kerry - forced them to rethink their style. Today's game will surely reveal no such holes in the Cork armour. They'll want a little revenge too.
what good will another league title do for either side? A fourth league title in six years for Cork will hardly satisfy their ambitions. But silverware is never to be sneered at.
Meanwhile, creating three-in-a-row league history has to be a driving force for the Dubs. If they do win, it will hardly set the bonfires blazing tonight but it may allow Dublin to settle. To date, they have started with six different midfield partnerships in their eight games and good showings from one or two players might cement their first-team status.
And for John Small this game could safeguard his summer - he has so far played five of the eight games in the heart of defence and a good showing off the bench today could make him a strong contender for a starting role later.
As for Cork, they need to be more prolific in the championship rather than being one of the consistent teams in league football but the league has been useful in terms of building a new formation, resurrecting careers and helping Colm O'Neill catch fire again.
Frequent spring success never hurt the Kilkenny hurlers who have reached 10 of the last 13 hurling league finals, winning eight. Players can use this final to win individual battles and pursuits. That's why it counts.
THE RETURN OF ALAN BROGAN
Brogan is likely to figure at some stage. It's fantastic to see that, at an elite level where the average age of participants is now mid 20s, there is still room for this experienced and skilful talisman.
Brogan brings movement and a killer pass to the party. Dublin lack composure and poise when he's not there. In a modern game so centrally centred around running, fitness and physical strength, it's great to watch how a subtle pass from Brogan can pick the opposition lock in a flash. And it's way easier on the eye than watching an attack featuring 10 handpasses. He made his comeback in a recent challenge game against Galway. He scored four points, including the equaliser, and clearly still has plenty to offer.
Dublin have mostly used him in the half-forward line, drawing on his playmaking abilities but he might benefit from being closer to goal and his brother Bernard as they know each other's game so well. Brogan started and scored in every championship game last year and even though 35 Dublin players have seen action this spring, his appearance today could yet be the most significant of them all.
THE NEW CORK ROAD
under Brian Cuthbert's early regime, Cork were open and naive. But they have added a defensive ring of steel and while they still want to harness their attacking potential, they have, literally, taken a step back to provide cover for their defence, while at the same time facilitating all their attacking flair.
It has proven a winning structure. The dimension added by fitness coach Pat Flanagan gives another edge because they are equipped to fuel that intense defensive-cum-attacking game for 70 minutes.
Life now revolves heavily around the handpass. Famously, Jim Gavin described them as the most defensive of all after their earlier league clash. And against Donegal they did, well, a 'Donegal' on it, racking up 251 handpasses. They still conceded 19 points which wouldn't be good enough today, you suspect.
So they can hone their game again today? Under Conor Counihan there was often a criticism of being too lateral but last time out they hit Donegal for four goals. They were on the ball nearly 350 times that day. Mark Collins is their most important figure in that regard. Cork are tackling better too. Late last year, they deployed a type of quarterback system and retreated their half-forwards into midfield but now most of their attackers revert into a mass defence. They have no problem yielding ground inside their own half.
Colm O'Driscoll is an example of how the system can work. A player thriving in a new role, rotating between defence and attack. O'Driscoll didn't get a sniff under Counihan but now he is an integral part of a team playing in a different vein. Now when Cork have the ball they don't give it away easily.
The only occasions when they do part quickly with the ball is when O'Neill makes a run into space. And would you blame them? Is there a player out there that deserves as much credit as O'Neill? After coming back from three cruciate ligament injuries it is a huge testament to the man that he is not just back in an inter-county squad, but on top of his game again.
He is the highest scorer in the top flight with 5-34 to his name - and it must also be noted that the Ballyclough wizard was a sub for the Derry match. O'Neill has also engineered many more scores and revels in supplying incoming team-Mates with clinical passes.
He is still only 26 and will be crucial to any cup that Cork land this season. He's right up there for Footballer of the Year at the moment.
GROUNDS FOR CONCERN
There is one question we would ask regarding this final: is Croke Park the best venue for it?
At least with Dublin involved, there is the guarantee of a decent crowd - Down should bring a nice batch too - but Cork fans will certainly not be testing the turnstile operators. The stadium will, most likely, be half-empty and, depending on which teams make future finals, there is surely an opportunity to bring showcases to the Gaelic Grounds, or Thurles. A lot of development has occurred at Tullamore too.
We saw with the regionalisation of the hurling league semi-finals what type of an atmosphere can be harnessed. That only drives the respective teams and enhances the spectator experience. A crowd of around 35,000 is needed for Croke Park to pay for itself and apart from financial parity there one wonders what else will be achieved.
Admittedly, it's great for Roscommon and Down, but playing in front of a packed crowd at a nationwide venue might be of more benefit as they steel themselves for the intensity of parochial provincial championship clashes which are only weeks away.
Sunday Indo Sport