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Kerry might face a siege in Ennis but champions will retain Munster title with little trouble en route to All-Ireland Series


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Clare, managed by Tralee native Mark Fitzgerald, will be organised and fired up but they simply don’t have the overall quality to deny Kerry an 11th Munster title in 12 years

And truth is, there was nothing in that draw to cause the Kerry manager any sleepless nights over the next fortnight. Monaghan coming to Killarney for the first game of Group 4 should be a reasonable test for Kerry, but no more than that. Heading to Navan to play the reigning Tailteann Cup champions, Meath, will be a novel assignment for the Kingdom against the Royals. And then it will be most likely back to Portlaoise for a rematch against Louth in the final group game and a similar outcome to Kerry’s crushing the Wee county a year ago.

Yes, we are getting ahead of ourselves and, yes, we are making assumptions. We’re assuming Louth won’t beat Dublin in the Leinster final and at the same time assuming Kerry will be in Group 4 as Munster champions.

Now, before any of our Clare brethern take huge offence – or anyone else takes umbrage with our assumptions – is there anyone in Kerry, Clare, Dublin, Louth or anywhere else who doesn’t believes those two things won’t happen?

Sure, the Clare players and management – Mark Fitzgerald from Tralee and James Costello from Blennerville among them – will carry some expectation of causing an upset in Ennis on Sunday and pulling off a heist not matched since the Banner lowered the Kingdom back in 1992. And that is their job. Clare must wholeheartedly believes they can buck the odds and win. But there’s the rub. They will be bucking huge odds to try and win a first Munster title since that 1992 ambush, while trying to stop Kerry winning an 11th Munster in 12 years.

When one considers that there was 14 points between the teams when they met at the same stage of the championship a year ago – and that Clare failed to get promoted out of Division 3 this year – the enormity of the task that faces the home side is laid bare.

Clare can play it one of two ways on Sunday. They can try to take the game to Kerry in as open and attack-minded manner as possible – a siege in Ennis, if you like – or they can do what a lot of teams of their standard do against much better opposition, and employ a hugely defensive approach and try to curtail Kerry on the scoring front. Either way, this Clare team won’t beat Kerry. At least not unless Kerry have some kind of catastrophic meltdown the likes of which we just haven’t seen from this group of players.

The worst Kerry have been this year was in the League defeat to Dublin in Croke Park, and that was mostly down to what Dublin brought to that game. Clare don’t have those players or that physicality or that mind-set in their locker. The Banner will be well organised under Mark Fitzgerald, they will be gutsy and honest and they have several excellent footballers to back all that up. And they will still be a long way behind Kerry in all the key metrics needed to win a game like this.

Kerry, as ever, are serious All-Ireland title contenders, and in the grand scheme of things this provincial final is just another step along that road to the Sam Maguire Cup. Indeed, as much as Kerry will want to retain their provincial title in and of itself, perhaps Tuesday’s All-Ireland Group Stage draw provides a greater incentive for Kerry to win.

Knowing what we now know, Kerry, as Munster champions, would be much better off in Group 4 with Louth, Monaghan and Meath than in Group 3 as second seeds with the Ulster champions (Armagh or Donegal), Tyrone and Cork. Group 4 gives Kerry a much better chance of qualifying straight through to the All-Ireland quarter-finals and avoiding what could be a potential banana skin and definitely taxing Preliminary Quarter-final.

As for Sunday’s game, Kerry – as per Jack O’Connor speaking on Monday – will be anxious to fully iron out all the wrinkles in their semi-final performance against Cork. Clare can be expected to thrown the hammer after the hatchet at Kerry early on in Ennis – or they might decide to play the ‘low block’ and try to drag Kerry into an arm-wrestle: either way, Kerry must be patient and controlled and faithful to their own game plan.

The likelihood is that Jason Foley will resume duties at full back. First, because the management will be anxious to get game minutes into him ahead of the group games coming swiftly along, and also to restore Tadhg Morley to centre back and get that familiar order back into the defence.

Midfield is likely to remain a Diarmuid O’Connor-Joe O’Connor partnership, while up front Paul Geaney, Stephen O’Brien and others will be putting pressure on Adrian Spillane in particular for a starting jersey. Whatever changes Jack O’Connor might make to the starting team that faced Cork, he will be keen to run the rule over 20 players in Ennis and hope Clare can ask as many questions of the champions as Cork did.

And what of Clare? Mark Fitzgerald had big shoes to fill when he took over from Colm Collins as manager, but the Tralee native has lost some dozen of more players from last year’s squad. Needless to say, he is in a serious rebuilding phase up there. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and at least a lot of his players won’t have any scar tissue from last year’s Munster final loss.

Whether Clare have the quality of player to discombobulate Kerry enough is the question, and the answer would appear to be ‘no’. Stephen Ryan, Manus Doherty, Cillian Brennan, Ronan Lanigan; Cillian Rouine, Ikem Ugweru, Brian McNamara, Darragh Bohannon, Dermot Coughlan and Emmet McMahon all faced Kerry in the Gaelic Grounds last year and were in the Clare team that beat Waterford last week, although the names that are missing – Cathal O’Connor, Pearse Lillis Eoin Cleary, Keelan Sexton, Pádraic Collins – are familiar and a huge loss.

This is not a game Kerry should be losing, and they won’t. Neither is it a game they should really be put under too much pressure, notwithstanding the fact it is a Munster final and Clare can be a very well organised side capable of a strong performance.

After Tuesday’s draw Kerry’s potential pathway to an All-Ireland quarter-final in Croke Park in early July has been clearly road-mapped. Sunday’s Munster final should be little more than a fine-tuning pit-stop on route.


Clare v Kerry

Sunday, May 5

Cusack Park, Ennis

Throw-in at 1.45pm

Referee: Fergal Kelly (Longford)

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