It’s been a familiar arm-chair ride through Munster for Kerry, and it is only now we will begin to see if they have added the required steel in 2022.
Jack O’Connor has returned for a third act as Kingdom boss, and his stony manner is expected to rub off on the players. The appointment of Paddy Tally, a noted coach both in Ulster and with Galway, was with a view to imbuing the team with extra nous and defensive solidity.
This duo will never kick a ball between them, and yet it seems to be taken for granted that they have added those missing ingredients. That’s a dangerous space for an untested side heading into an All-Ireland quarter-final.
Now that the kids have been asked to leave the TV room as the gory bits are about to start, we’ll find out what Kerry are made of. The Kingdom will be asked questions by a physical Mayo side on Sunday, far more so than during a comprehensive win over the same opposition in April’s league final.
James Horan has been dealing with injuries all year and, as well as Tommy ‘Goals’ Conroy being out for the season, he went into that game without an engine in his car. With Paddy Durcan, Oisin Mullin, Eoghan McLaughlin and Diarmuid O’Connor again back in action, they are a much stronger proposition. A flawed team, but one that will front up.
The fitness of Mayo’s Ryan O’Donoghue may well decide this game. The Belmullet man is talented but can be hit-and-miss during games. His absence has been keenly felt when so many of his attacking deputies stank out Croke Park during the comeback win over Kildare, and it’s one of those cases where a player’s stock rises without doing a thing.
Clifford is a gem of the first water and, no matter the obstacles, could decide this match on his own. Assuming he is fully fit, he will do damage, though it is unlikely to be quite so total as the league final.
His injury cost Kerry against Tyrone in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final, and therein lies the question about his team. Will others step up? League titles in 2017, 2020 and 2021 (shared) weren’t cashed in, so again we wait on proof in games where it matters most. One All-Ireland since 2009, it must be remembered.
It seems unlikely that Mayo’s starting forwards will be the match-winners here, but one of Keegan, Mullin, Durcan or McLaughlin may offer the solutions from deep. Still, their injury woes surely give Kerry the edge.
Dublin’s fortunes have seen an incredible upturn since the return from injury of Con O’Callaghan. The Cuala man gives their attack a consistent scorer and focal point, which is bad news for a Cork side that very few truly believe in.
The Rebels have talent but that won’t be enough. They will need to impede the Dubs’ march upfield, but which of their inside forwards of Brian Hurley, Steven Sherlock and Cathail O’Mahony are built for that?
All logic would suggest a double-digit defeat for a Cork side that required an unwarranted black card for Limerick to see off their unheralded Munster rivals in the last round. This could be a long, tortuous show — think ‘The Passion of the Christ’, only with an O’Neill’s football.
Derry need to learn to kick the ball more, as you can’t subsist on a running game alone on the wide expanses of Croke Park. They might beat Clare without one, but it’s a perfect opportunity for Rory Gallagher to find out if they are capable of more.
A nine-point win over the Banner in the league suggests this game is there for the Oak Leafers, but it was their brilliance en route to an Ulster title that makes them such a fancy. Yet we can’t be entirely sure that Clare won’t have a say here. They have quality, a never-say-die spirit that got them past Roscommon, and scorers upfront in Keelan Sexton, Eoin Cleary and veteran David Tubridy.
Derry are the new hotshots but restarting their season after the highs of their Ulster final win will be a tall order. They will be thankful that the draw has been favourable.
Armagh’s failure in Ulster has allowed them to recalibrate. The league win away to Dublin at the end of January hinted at a team ready to explode into the season, but Donegal cooked their goose in the provincial championship.
Since then, they have been imperious in wins over Tyrone and Donegal (in part II). They’re a team built for Croke Park and, like Galway, are profoundly aware of the opportunity to get to an All-Ireland final now that Kerry, Mayo and Dublin are all loaded onto one side of the draw.
Jarly Og Burns was in Thurles last weekend to watch Diarmuid O’Keeffe — who is married to his sister Megan — and Wexford leave a great chance at an All-Ireland semi-final place behind them. He will have seen the pain up close in the aftermath.
Along with Burns, Rian O’Neill is built for the open plains of GAA HQ, no more than Shane Walsh and Damien Comer in the Galway corner. You couldn’t fully trust any of the four teams on this side of the draw, which makes it so exciting.
These four games could be the high watermark of the GAA calendar.
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