Sunday 17 December 2017

Today's championship previews

Dermot Crowe

Leinster SHC Final: Dublin v KilkennyCroke Park, 4.0

IN last year's championship meeting with Dublin, Kilkenny had an early goal for starters, by then as familiar to them as soup before the main course. After 40 seconds, Eddie Brennan sneaked in behind his marker, took a lay-off and found the net. Kilkenny won by 19 points, emphatic, but Dublin had their chances, too. Dotsy O'Callaghan and Liam Rushe (pictured) both turned the Kilkenny full-back line in the first half and created good goal chances. Neither was converted and Dublin trailed at the break by five.

After 50 minutes, Richie Power went off on a run and scored the goal that effectively buried their hopes. Kilkenny fragility near their own goal was later ruthlessly exploited in the All-Ireland final by Tipperary.

In the league final, Brian Cody could be seen directing strong words towards one of his full-back line but it was hard not to feel sympathy. The ball was coming in from every direction, sprayed beautifully. The full-back line had little protection. For all that, this line did not distinguish itself in last year's All-Ireland final, nor in the recent championship win over Wexford. Dublin have chosen three pacy inside players. Each member of the Kilkenny full-back line has had problems this year and whether Noel Hickey and Jackie Tyrrell are Kilkenny's best choices for the corner-back positions is arguable.

Kilkenny will bank on a greater protective screen in front of them, however, with Tommy Walsh returning and Michael Fennelly back in midfield, and Dublin missing Ryan O'Dwyer.

The gap between Kilkenny and Dublin, indeed Kilkenny and the rest of mankind, has narrowed since last year's Leinster semi-final. Dublin are now a formidable championship side and a good deal more composed. They have found the missing physicality in the half-forward line with the return of Conal Keaney and chance acquisition of O'Dwyer. Keaney has been in incredible form given his time out of hurling at this level. Paul Ryan is hurling like he has always promised to and the release of the burden on O'Callaghan has given him an added lease of life.

But O'Dwyer's absence will be felt; in the league final he was outstanding. It places even greater pressure on Keaney to lead the team and force the Kilkenny half-backs into retreat.

Kilkenny will feel they are more prepared now than at any stage of the year. With Walsh joined by Henry Shefflin, Fennelly and Richie Power, all of whom missed the league final, the margins Dublin enjoyed have surely diminished. Kilkenny, seeking redemption, will be hard to deny. Defensive questions remain but they have several of the game's best players, some exceptional forwards and a strong bench.

Dublin: G Maguire; N Corcoran, P Kelly, O Gough; J McCaffrey, J Boland, S Durkin; L Rushe, A McCrabbe; S Lambert, C Keaney, C McCormack; D O'Callaghan, P Ryan, P Carton.

Kilkenny: D Herity; N Hickey, JJ Delaney, J Tyrrell; T Walsh, B Hogan, P Murphy; M Fennelly, M Rice; TJ Reid, R Power, E Larkin; C Fennelly, H Shefflin, R Hogan.

Verdict: Kilkenny

Munster SFC Final

Kerry v Cork

Killarney, 2.0

If this fixture was threatening a collapse of public interest -- 20 championship meetings in 10 years -- then having Kerry as outsiders should sort that out.

Cork can never tire of beating Kerry, surely, and they come to Killarney where they haven't won since 1995 with a soaring reputation to defend. The home team hasn't been very convincing by the county's exalted standards. Cork now have the swagger and Kerry find themselves having to measure themselves against their rule.

There are always concerns in Kerry about something, but at the moment there would appear to be even more than normal. These would be what you might call genuine concerns. Chief among them is that the Kingdom is not flush with midfield options and concerns abound about the lasting viability of the current partnership of Anthony Maher and Bryan Sheehan. But Kerry will hardly leave it a simple arithmetic of two on two. Much congestion is expected or some kick-out strategy that gives Kerry options beyond winning clean ball in a straight duel. The loss of Paul Galvin in this regard could be the single biggest factor in pointing them towards an honourable defeat and the prospect of bettering themselves through the qualifiers.

They'll have learned precious little from their earlier championship outings. The concerns about the midfield spread back the field and even against a poor Limerick opposition, the defence leaked three goals. Kerry, led by Colm Cooper (pictured), have forwards as good as they've ever had but if they do not get enough ball they can't exert the kind of influence needed to overthrow Cork. If Kerry don't win enough possession around the middle, they will be dropping back down the field trying to prevent the visitors from making overlapping runs and creating goalscoring openings.

They have a better attack than Cork, though, and if they can find some way of striking a balance in the middle of the field they could outscore their opponents by virtue of a greater gift for creativity and devilment near goal. Yet you would count on Cork to win plenty of ball and if that is the outcome then Kerry may find victory out of their reach.

Kerry: B Kealy; S Enright, M ó Sé, T O'Sullivan; A O'Mahony, E Brosnan, K Young; A Maher, B Sheehan; Darran O'Sullivan, Declan O'Sullivan, D Walsh; C Cooper, K Donaghy, K O'Leary.

Cork: A Quirke; J O'Sullivan, G Canty, M Shields; N O'Leary, J Miskella, P Kissane; A O'Connor, A Walsh; C Sheehan, P Kelly, P O'Neill; D Goulding, D O'Connor, P Kerrigan.

Verdict: Cork

Ulster SHC Final

Antrim v Armagh

Casement Park, 3.30

It is small beer for hurling revolutionists perhaps but Armagh have been making strides to improve their hurling credentials and their win over Down in the Ulster semi-final is a reward for all that effort away from the limelight.

This is a hugely contrasting day for the counties involved. Antrim are chasing a tenth successive win, having totally monopolised the competition. Derry have faded away as the third force and now Armagh look set to take their place, maybe even sustain a run as the main threat to Antrim's hegemony.

The Orchard add new colour even if the province is now effectively a satellite competition, cut off from the championship mainstream. With that in mind, Antrim make a plethora of changes. This should give Armagh a better footing but they are extreme outsiders to win. They must take what they can from it and keep building.

Verdict: Antrim

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