Rebels look to reach the higher altitude in Munster
With Kerry shorn of key figures, Cork appear primed to build on a positive spring campaign. Donnchadh Boyle investigates
IN name at least, the threat of strike action hangs over the Munster football championship for next season. Waterford, Limerick, Tipperary and Clare have already made their feelings clear on the seeded draw that all but guarantees a Cork-Kerry Munster final. In their mind, fairness was sacrificed for a big pay day and as a result, all four sides withdrew from the McGrath Cup and refused to provide any players for the Munster Interprovincial team. As part of their protest, all of the current panellists insist they won't play next year if the status quo is retained.
All the indications are that Munster will relent and provide an open draw next year as flagged by former provincial chairman Sean Walsh during his ultimately unsuccessful campaign to succeed Liam O'Neill as GAA president.
From a logistical point of view, it makes sound logic for Munster to keep the sides apart. Money talks and when the big two met in last year's Munster final in Killarney, it generated €507,000 more in income than the Cork-Clare decider of the previous season.
Even if that change comes to pass, it's unlikely to make much difference to the destination of the Munster football title any time soon. Last year's Munster championship saw Cork and Kerry win two provincial games each before clashing in the final. The big two won those four games by an aggregate total of 70 points and an average of more than 17 points per match.
The closest any of the 'other four' got to an upset was the nine-point loss of Clare to Cork in the semi-final. After that, the winning margin was closer to 20 points than 10 and, in the case of Kerry's win over Waterford, stretched to a dizzying 26 points.
Cork and Kerry's relatively easy path to the business end of the season doesn't go unnoticed in the rest of the country either. With the Munster giants guaranteed to be on opposite sides of the draw, it means they only have to win one game of significance to find themselves in an All-Ireland quarter-final and means they usually avoid the last-chance saloon that is the qualifiers until the final round. By contrast, this year Tyrone or Down will need to win three games just to make an Ulster final.
It's hardly a new phenomenon and the numbers are well worn at this stage. The pages that recorded Clare's 1992 provincial win are yellowed with age now. Before that, you have to go back to 1935 for Tipperary's success for another interruption to the Cork-Kerry duopoly.
League form doesn't offer much hope that this year will be different. Cork and Kerry operated in the top flight while Limerick staved off relegation from Division 3. The Treaty men seemed to have slipped back from a few years ago when they threatened to topple both Cork and Kerry on a number of occasions but ultimately fell agonisingly short when their efforts deserved more.
There was some promise from Clare and Tipperary who earned promotion to Division three and contested the Division 4 final. Tipp, who have enjoyed something of a football renaissance in recent years, emerged on top in that game. Their underage success has yet to fully translate to the senior grade but their All-Ireland-winning minor side of 2011 were still eligible for the U-21 grade this year, so time is still on their side.
In Clare, Colm Collins has already underlined his ability to organise and motivate a team. Under his tenure, Cratloe came close to engineering a huge shock against Dr Crokes in the Munster club SFC final and his touch has helped the Banner to a first promotion in 19 years. So far, the county have managed the sensitive dual issue well and Podge and Sean Collins will be important to Clare's plans when they try to engineer a championship win when Waterford come to Ennis early next month.
The Deise have endured a disappointing spring. The positivity from the near miss against Galway in the Qualifiers last year has deserted them as they have struggled to adjust to life after the retirement of talisman Gary Hurney but manager Niall Carew has constantly insisted there are quality players in the county.
However, the championship will boil down to Cork versus Kerry on July 13. There has been plenty of change for both sides in the last 12 months. For Cork, there is a new manager and a mass exodus of familiar faces. The 2010 All-Ireland-winning team has been gutted but Brian Cuthbert has a large glut of players who have been waiting for their chance.
The Cork production line has rolled steadily in recent years and of the 28-strong championship panel named by Cork late last month, only one player, the highly rated Kevin Crowley, played U-21 this year.
It's generally been an upward graph for the Rebels since Cuthbert took over. However, the significance of the win over Dublin in Croke Park was diluted by the hammering they took when the sides met again in the league semi-final. It remains to be seen what impact the 17-point swing in the final 30 minutes will have on their young side but other than that, it was a promising spring.
And even if there are question marks over whether they are ready to operate at Dublin's altitude, on paper at least they are ready to take charge in Munster. They won four Munster U-21 titles in a row while Kerry lost more iconic players this year.
The retirements of Tomas O Se, Paul Galvin and Eoin Brosnan mean they are shorn of a huge amount of experience in the middle third, while Colm Cooper's injury will see Kerry look to some unproven players in the championship. They looked to be a little off the pace when losing by 10 points to the Rebels and much responsibility will fall on the shoulders of the talented James O'Donoghue.
There's always a kick in Kerry and for 60 minutes last year, they looked like they would be contesting an All-Ireland final only to be chinned by the Dublin juggernaut. They haven't gone away but Cork look ready to ascend to the throne in the province and head for the All-Ireland quarter-finals with a spring in their step.
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