Inexperienced Cork side expected to lose out to league champions Kerry on Saturday
Strip away the Páirc Uí Rinn or nowhere debate and has there ever been a more muted Munster SFC Cork versus Kerry build-up?
It is saying something when Ed Sheeran has been the most talked about individual on Leeside ahead of the (almost) annual Cork and Kerry provincial senior football semi-final clash.
There are mitigating factors, of course, none more so than the Rebels disappointing National League campaign, the Kingdom’s Division 1 title success, David Clifford’s mesmerising form and a Kerry panel primed for a serious All-Ireland tilt. So it is understandable that expectations are low ahead of the old enemy’s visit across the county bounds.
Keith Ricken will be sorely missed as well. The Cork senior manager’s ability to light up a press conference with a couple of one-liners, but more importantly, his meticulous preparation and observations of his county’s opponents would have enlivened what’s been an otherwise dull week.
Hopefully, an expected attendance of 11,000 should make for a cracking atmosphere inside Páirc Uí Rinn on match day.
Whether that turns into a hostile reception for the visitors depends on how many Cork fans decide to support a senior team that has been in transition before the 2022 National League even started.
It is hard to draw too many positives from a Division 2 campaign that resulted in two Cork victories over Down and Offaly - both of whom were subsequently relegated - and narrowly avoiding dropping into Division 3.
It is also worth noting that Keith Ricken had already tried out close to 30 players before the third round of this year’s league had elapsed.
Clearly, Ricken and his management team have been in experimental mode and looking to deliver as much game time as possible to the senior squad’s newcomers.
Raw talents like Cathail O’Mahony, Colm O’Callaghan, Dan Ó Duinnín, Fionn Herlihy and David Buckley were given their chance and will be all the better for those experiences.
Other plus points include St. Finbarr’s Steven Sherlock making the most of his opportunities and finishing the league as his county’s top scorer with 1-36. When fully fit, Brian Hurley, Mattie Taylor and Tadhg Corkery underlined their importance to the current Cork setup.
There is no getting away from the fact that this transitional Cork side are huge outsiders because of their understandably erratic league form and the quality of their upcoming opponents.
Kerry will begin the Munster semi-final as overwhelming favourites on the back of their successful Division 1 National League.
Wins over Dublin, Donegal, Monaghan, Armagh and Mayo (twice) saw the Kingdom claim the national competition for a 23rd time.
Not that they needed it but Jack O’Connor’s return has infused a Kerry panel that came up short to Tyrone in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final with renewed confidence.
Regularly fielding his strongest available team, O’Connor has been rewarded with Seán O’Shea, Paudie Clifford and Paul Geaney delivering some of their most effective displays in a green and gold jersey.
And yet, a talented Kerry team blessed with plenty of options off the bench, is an All-Ireland contender thanks to the guile of the country’s most in-form forward.
David Clifford finished the National League campaign with 1-6 in the final against Mayo. That brought the Fossa and East Kerry man’s total to 5-28 of which a staggering 5-22 came from open play.
Always hungry for possession, fully fit and lethal in front of goal, Clifford is playing lights out football this year.
It is difficult to see how Cork can curb Clifford’s influence. Even if they do, expect a half-forward line of Dara Moynihan, Paudie Clifford and Adrian Spillane to exploit any available space. Diarmuid O’Connor and Jack Barry’s midfield axis will also take some stopping.
Yet, it is Kerry’s attack-minded half-back line comprising (probably) of Gavin White, Tadhg Morely and Brian Ó Beaglaíoch that Cork will have the most trouble dealing with. All three possess an accurate kick-pass or burst of pace from which the majority of Kerry’s attacks emanate.
A combination of those players and Jack O’Connor’s experience are the reasons Kerry possess serious All-Ireland aspirations in 2022.
This team is expected to roll into Páirc Uí Rinn, qualify for a provincial final and progress to the business end of the All-Ireland championship with the minimum of fuss.
John Cleary and his players can take solace from the fact no one outside (and few if any inside) the county bounds expect this Cork team to win or even make a game of it. The reality is that there should be zero pressure on the Rebels players shoulders and they can just go out and give it their best shot.
That’s all the Cork management team and supporters can ask but all signs point to Kerry confidently moving on to another Munster final appearance.