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Sink or swim

On a wet February night in Tralee over eight years ago, Jack O'Connor enjoyed his first competitive victory as Kerry senior football team manager.

Fittingly, it was against old rivals Cork and against the backdrop of their defeat against Longford in the opening round of the league in Pearse Park, it couldn't have felt any bigger at the time.

The Kingdom's defeat to Longford had shaken the county and, coupled with the defeat of the U-21s to Waterford in the previous year's Munster championship on Jack's watch, the locals were getting a little jittery with the man steering the ship.

Beating Cork that night was the real launch pad for what has subsequently been a stellar management career for O'Connor over two periods. For good measure, Paul Galvin had his first of many altercations with a red shirt.

Given the pressure he was under going into that game, O'Connor is, in relative terms, likely to rate that victory as highly as most of the other nine from 16 meetings he has enjoyed as manager in league and championship against their greatest rivals.

The obvious exceptions would, of course, be the 2009 All-Ireland final and the 2010 Munster final replay, which was their first replay victory over Cork at Pairc Ui Chaoimh since 1976 and helped to steer a pathway away from the qualifiers that O'Connor clearly dreads.


But, after that, O'Connor might choose to slot in that first success in 2004 to third place. It bought him time and allowed him to shape a team that would ultimately win the first of two league/championship doubles in a three-year period. It took the heat off.

Since then, the record he has built up against Cork has been impressive. The six league meetings have been shared equally, but in championship three draws and two wins in Munster is as much as Cork could muster from 12 meetings.

Past records will count for little, however, as the biggest game of championship 2012 so far comes into sharp focus this weekend.

Given how highly they rank in everyone's order of merit, it is always a game that has the potential to shape a championship like no other, especially when it's a Munster semi-final.

The magnitude of these early season provincial games between Munster's two big hitters has been increasing with every passing year.

In 2010, their semi-final was billed as a game Kerry simply couldn't lose if they were to have any prospect of retaining their All-Ireland title.

They won after that replay yet found themselves idle in August for the first time since 1999. Cork went on to win the All-Ireland title, reaping the benefits of a back-door run in a similar fashion to Kerry 12 months earlier that required three qualifier victories.

It was interesting to listen to O'Connor's speak last weekend about how he fears the qualifiers and how much he detests losing. Easy knowing it was Kerry/Cork week.

It seems ironic that a manager who has enjoyed his last two All-Ireland successes with this team by skilfully negotiating the back door should be so wary of that route.

He spoke about the confidence that winning these games brought, but hidden in that observation must be an inherent fear that two extra games through the qualifiers to reach an All-Ireland quarter-final may be a route too far for a team with so much mileage in the legs.

They dragged themselves kicking and screaming to the 2009 All-Ireland quarter-finals before exploding into life at the sound and sight of a packed Croke Park.

But O'Connor knows that they can't take that chance again. He knows that clashes against counties like Longford, Sligo and Antrim, all of which they found themselves under pressure in, won't fall so easily for them again.

Kerry come into the match under a slight cloud. After blazing a trail through the league they have shown lethargy in their last two games -- against Mayo in the league semi final and Tipperary in the opening round in Munster.

Now the doubts over Bryan Sheehan's knee injury have manifested into exclusion from Sunday's teamsheet. They must do without their biggest success story from 2011.

After all the apparent success of blooding new players in that league campaign, only Peter Crowley survives at half-back for the game that really matters.

The likes of Brian McGuire, Shane Enright, Paddy Curtin and James O'Donoghue have not been trusted to make the step-up.

The fact that Kerry must return to Seamus Scanlon as cover for Sheehan underlines that shallow depth of talent that is coming through. O'Connor's contention that victories over Tipperary in the two previous Munster quarter finals had them suffering from an acute bout of deja vu has much merit, but flicking a switch so soon to a game of this nature is a dangerous practice.

Two years ago this very fixture was viewed as the championship's "game of death."

Yet, ironically, it was the losers who emerged as the eventual All-Ireland champions.

The stakes are as high once again, maybe even higher. Kerry look over the edge of the precipice knowing that the climb back up may this time be beyond them if they fall.

Irish Independent