OpinionPat Spillane

Spring tie an opportunity to lay down Sam marker

James O'Donoghue, in 2012 league game, has since gone on to make a big impact with Kerry
James O'Donoghue, in 2012 league game, has since gone on to make a big impact with Kerry

BY the time we come around to penning the 2015 sports review of the year, the odds are that today’s Kerry versus Dublin league encounter won’t even merit a footnote.

After all, it’s only the first Sunday in March and the league is still in its infancy. However, there is more than just two points at stake in Killarney.

This is an opportunity for the 2013 and 2014 All-Ireland title-holders to lay down a marker.

And I would wager that the game will be a far more exciting and enjoyable that the overhyped Ireland versus England rugby showdown at the Aviva.

Two years ago Jim Gavin’s new-look Dublin blew Kerry away in Killarney, winning 1-11 to 0-4. Even though it was only the second round of the league, Dublin’s style of play that afternoon was breathtaking

They produced a near complete performance and this champagne football ultimately yielded them an All-Ireland title later on in the year.

Winning builds momentum and becomes a habit, which is why it is important to do well in the league. 

Dublin beat the Kingdom again when they clashed in the league in Croke Park last spring. At face value it was a morale-shattering defeat for the Kingdom as they surrendered a lead to 14-man Dublin in the final quarter.

On reflection, though, there was much to admire in Kerry’s display. 

It was the night the now injured James O’Donoghue – who hit 0-3 on his Croke Park debut against the Dubs in 2012 – underlined his class with a superb first-half goal, while rookies Paul Murphy, Stephen O’Brien and Michael Geaney got their first taste of playing for Kerry in Croke Park.

Interestingly, 12 of the Kerry team which faced Dublin that night featured in the All-Ireland final against Donegal last September. 

They sent out a message that night that they wouldn’t be easily bowled over. Having gone toe-to-toe with a seemingly unbeatable Dublin team, they had no reason to fear anybody. 

This is why today’s game is important: it’s a chance to gain a psychological edge ahead of more important encounters down the road. 

Dublin and Kerry lost their first-round matches and while both won last time, today’s losers will struggle to make the playoffs and could find themselves sucked into a relegation battle.

Dublin lost their way against Cork in round one. They struggled to get past the blanket defence and failed to match the Rebels’ pace and intensity.

Pointedly, Gavin’s decision to take off three of his better players – Shane Carthy, Emmet Ó Conghaile and Cormac Costello – when the game was still in the melting pot suggests that the Dubs are not hell-bent on retaining their league title.

Dublin weren’t a whole pile better in the opening half of their next match, against Donegal, kicking six wides and scoring 1-5. But when reduced to 14 men in the final quarter, following the harsh dismissal of Kevin McManamon, they upped the pace and intensity. 

Their wonderful support play and their ability to vary their running angles enabled them to cut through the allegedly impregnable Donegal ‘blanket’.

Pace and intensity are the two key words when it comes to measuring Dublin’s progress. When they play at pace and notch up the intensity levels they are near impossible to beat, but a drop in either leaves them vulnerable.

After just two rounds of the league it is premature to suggest that Dublin have changed their style. However, I don’t think that winning the competition tops their list of priorities.

So far they have used 26 players, while 17 of last year’s panel haven’t seen any game time. Five newcomers have been introduced, while Ciaran Kilkenny is back after missing last season with a cruciate ligament injury. 

The best of the newcomers is John Small, who looks very impressive as a holding centre-back. Dean Rock finally got his first league start – and it will be hard to keep him off the team for the championship.

However, having such a huge conveyor belt of talent is something of a double-edged sword. 

They had a huge turnover of players in both the league and championship last year and I don’t think Gavin ever came close to figuring out what his best 15 were. It is vital to have a settled team in order to hone game plans and tactics.

Tactically, they have tweaked their approach. They look more structured in defence, with the half-back line staying ‘at home’ to protect their full-back line.

Their half-forwards are tracking back more often and they’re less gung-ho in their approach and their shots-to-goal ratio is now much lower than last year.

What was also noticeable is that they were far more physical against Donegal in the league encounter than they were in the championship last summer.

So how have the new All-Ireland champions wintered? It is best to ignore their woeful first-round display against Mayo. They had just returned from their holiday in South African and had only two weeks of training under their belt.

They were not physically, or mentally, ready to face a Mayo team determined to avenge their All-Ireland semi-final replay defeat.

Kerry were significantly better in the second round when they beat Derry by seven points – Paul Geaney and Bryan Sheehan were particularly impressive.

The extra three weeks training will have brought them on a lot. Gooch Cooper won’t be ready for another few weeks, but I expect 2015 team captain Kieran Donaghy (left) to be thrown into the fray.

So who will win? Well, Eamonn Fitzmaurice got one monkey off his back last month: it was the first time he had managed Kerry to victory in a league tie in February. He’s aiming for another first today as Kerry have never beaten Dublin since he took charge.

But the omens for him are not promising. The sides have clashed seven times since the start of the current decade, with Kerry winning just one – a first-round league tie in 2012.

I don’t think the trend will change today.

Verdict: Dublin.