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EXCLUSIVE Kerry are the new Dublin... their strength in depth is now on a par with the six-in-a-row champs at their peak

Criticism after last year’s shock loss to Rebels has been the catalyst for Kingdom’s improvement

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Paudie Clifford has added a new dimension to Kerry's attack. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Paudie Clifford has added a new dimension to Kerry's attack. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Mark Keane celebrates after scoring Cork's shock winner against Kerry last December. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Mark Keane celebrates after scoring Cork's shock winner against Kerry last December. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

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Paudie Clifford has added a new dimension to Kerry's attack. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

The mercury might be hitting new heights this week around the country but revenge will be served cold in this weekend’s Munster decider in Killarney.

Sunday is a date all Kerry footballers, management and supporters have had inked in their diary in capital letters since last November’s shock defeat to the Rebels in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

Last year Cork deserved to still be in the contest late on, before Mark Keane’s goal saw them perform a smash and grab. They did a lot right – they were physical, they got in Kerry’s faces and they stayed in the game, even if there was an element of fortune to their late killer goal. They deserved that bit of luck on the day.

The criticism laid at the door of Kerry and manager Peter Keane in the aftermath was that the Kingdom’s brains trust had at least one eye on fine-tuning a game-plan that they felt would take out the Dubs.

This year, they are a far more formidable outfit and have illustrated a real focus in everything they have done to date in league and championship.

They arrived back in collective training post-lockdown prior to the league in remarkable physical shape, and their younger players have taken the lead even more so this year.

Then there’s the huge positive they have got from Paudie Clifford’s inclusion in their forward line - with his tackle count, hard running and understanding with his inside forward line giving them a new dimension.

Kerry’s new-look forward line this year is very potent. They also have arguably the greatest strength in depth in terms of ability, pace, experience and know-how on the bench. Like the Dublin team of a few years back, they are introducing lads in the second half who have a positive impact on their game.

In their provincial semi-final victory over Tipp, Killian Spillane came in and kicked three points from play. That’s something that could prove crucial before this year’s championship is settled.

The Tipperary clash was also a valuable run-out for Kerry in terms of their opponents setting up defensively, but they figured it out. And Cork are likely to try something similar, but you’d hope there is a far greater counter-attacking game from the men in red.

It’s going to take an incredible display or an amazing under-performance from Kerry if Cork are to have any chance.

Having watched Cork a few times I just don’t see how they can come up with a game-plan to deal with the scoring threat of David Clifford and Seán O’Shea and the hard running, game-management and flexibility of the Kerry attack, while at the same time post a match-winning score themselves.

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Mark Keane celebrates after scoring Cork's shock winner against Kerry last December. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Mark Keane celebrates after scoring Cork's shock winner against Kerry last December. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Mark Keane celebrates after scoring Cork's shock winner against Kerry last December. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

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On their form to date, I think the lack of inside movement in Cork’s forward line will play into Kerry hands – on Sunday they need a massive game from Luke Connolly in particular and for him to inspire those around him.

The Rebels will no doubt bring plenty of energy and physicality to the contest from the outset and they have hard runners like Ian Maguire and Ruairí Deane who might cause Kerry problems. But, overall, their forward unit does not carry the potency to fully extend Kerry.

What’s that quaint west Kerry phrase? Oh yeah, ‘hammer the hammer’ – well, Cork need to apply their own version to see if they can force Kerry into a position that they have not been in since last November’s duel.

Then there’s the Killarney factor. Last year’s game was played in a monsoon and Kerry struggled to get their game going at full tempo for any extended period.

It would be unthinkable for Kerry to lose to Cork in Killarney.

The Leesiders haven’t won a championship match against Kerry in Fitzgerald Stadium since 1995, when a Colin Corkery and Don Davis-inspired side toppled Kerry in their ‘spiritual home’.

OK, Cork have drawn four of their 11 encounters there since then, and actually won three of those replays on home soil, but Kerry are forewarned and definitely forearmed after last year’s embarrassment.

There have been some very enjoyable games in this year’s championship so far, particularly in Ulster.

Managers are now encouraging forwards to back themselves more than perhaps they did in previous seasons. The game is becoming more tricky for defenders all the time and the role of the black card and other disciplinary amendments have made defending an even more perilous occupation.

Get a yellow card and you can be a dead man walking, or often making your way to the sideline as your manager elects not to take a gamble on a player already on the referee’s radar.

Sunday’s Connacht final could prove to be another enjoyable duel. I’ve been impressed with Mayo this season and last.

James Horan, since his return to the hot seat, has restructured his panel and it’s one built on youth, power and pace.

Last year they were in bonus territory when reaching the All-Ireland final and the experience they gained in Croke Park last winter could be crucial for their clash with rivals Galway at GAA headquarters.

Two months or so ago, I was of the view that Pádraic Joyce’s side had little chance in Connacht but I think they have improved since and, like Mayo, have plenty of young talent. Also the availability of Shane Walsh following his injury scare is a huge boost.

Mayo made a statement by agreeing to a provincial final they had home advantage for being played in Croke Park. It is a sign of what Horan wants out of his men – be brave, don’t be afraid to take a risk, there is no reward without risk.

For me, I think Mayo will edge it, despite the absence of Cillian O’Connor.

Mayo’s middle third, with Oisín Mullen, Paddy Durcan, Matthew Ruane, Aidan O’Shea, Eoghan McLaughlin and Ryan O’Donoghue is stronger than Galway’s - and in Tommy Conroy they have an in-form forward who could be the headline act this weekend.

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