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5 reasons to be cheerful ahead of the Mayo game (and 5 more to be fearful)

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by Adam Moynihan

It appears as though the four-week layoff has done little to dent the confidence of the green and gold faithful. An informal poll carried out on Twitter revealed that 88.9% of my followers are expecting Kerry to beat Mayo in the All-Ireland quarter-final. Over half of the 323 respondents think the margin of victory will be four points or more.

The team’s league form was certainly encouraging and they did all that was asked of them in Munster, so perhaps it is only natural that fans are anticipating another victory and safe passage to a semi-final against Dublin.

There must be some niggling doubts, however, even if they appear to be buried deep in the back of supporters’ minds at this particular moment in time.

Here are some reasons to be optimistic, followed by some factors that should make us wary of what might come to pass on Jones’ Road on Sunday afternoon.

REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL

1. Form. Taking into account league and championship (and pre-season too if you want to go back that far) Kerry have been the best and most consistent team in Ireland so far this year. They won three out of three in the McGrath Cup, six out of eight in the league and two out of two in Munster, all while playing a decent brand of football. The only game they lost was irrelevant from their perspective – and it came against the All-Ireland champions who were fighting for their Division 1 status.

Crucially, key players like Gavin White, Paudie Clifford, Seán O’Shea and David Clifford have all been moving well. In the forwards, Stephen O'Brien and Paul Geaney are also back at it, and Adrian Spillane has given the team an edge. When it comes to each side's forward divisions, there's no denying that Kerry hold most of the aces.

2. The League Final. Kerry’s last meeting against this opponent was a totally one-sided demolition job. Jack O’Connor’s side defeated Mayo by 3-19 to 0-13 in April’s league final at Croke Park with Man of the Match David Clifford scoring 1-6 (1-5 from play). In March, Kerry also beat Mayo in the league in Tralee (1-12 to 0-14).

3. The Defence. After being the butt of the joke for a number of years, Kerry’s defence seems to have made significant improvements in 2022. Jason Foley has been excellent at full back while Tadhg Morley has made the No. 6 jersey his own. Add to that the speed and guile of Tom O’Sullivan, Brian Ó Beaglaoich, Gavin White and Graham O’Sullivan and you have a pretty settled and assured back six. Goalkeeper Shane Ryan has also impressed of late.

4. The Jack Factor. Jack O’Connor has ticked all the right boxes so far in his third spell as Kerry manager; you would be hard-pressed to find very many sticks to beat him with at this juncture. Up to this point, it appears as though the players have responded very well to his reappointment. The shrewd Dromid man has them playing with confidence.

5. Cliffy is Back. This one speaks for itself.

REASONS TO BE FEARFUL

1. The Layoff. The last thing any intercounty squad wants is a month of inactivity in the middle of the season but that’s exactly what Kerry have had to deal with. It’s farcical really, and there’s absolutely no question that it puts them at a disadvantage heading into this match. Mayo have played two challenging games in recent weeks while Kerry have been left playing amongst themselves.

2. Kerry are Untested. As commanding as Kerry were in Munster, the games were virtually meaningless. If the competition was properly run, they wouldn’t be playing against the likes of Cork or Limerick at all, such is the gulf in talent that currently exists between the teams. Ulster folk can quibble all they want about Kerry’s easy route to the All-Ireland series but the reality is that there’s no substitute for tough, testing championship action. Kerry have sampled none of that in 2022.

3. Croke Park Record. Croke Park is traditionally considered a home away from home for the Kerry footballers but their recent record at HQ leaves plenty to be desired. They have won just twice in their last 10 visits to the capital and their last championship result there – the 2021 All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Tyrone – really stung.

4. Full-Strength Mayo. When you compare Mayo’s starting 15 in the league final to the starting 15 that is likely to take to the field this weekend, you quickly realise how unwise it is to read too much into the last meeting between the teams. James Horan should more or less have a full deck to play with this time and having Oisín Mullin and Paddy Durcan back in the fold is sure to give the match a different complexion.

5. Clifford Under Wraps. In April, Mayo left Pádraig O’Hora completely isolated on David Clifford. The results, from their point of view, were disastrous. With that in mind, James Horan will surely set his defence up differently in an attempt to curtail Clifford’s influence on the game. O'Hora could be entrusted with the task again but whoever gets the nod, we can expect helpers to rush in and suffocate the explosive full forward from the off. If Mayo are successful in this endeavour, it will give them a huge lift - it might even propel them to another famous win.

VERDICT: Complacency on Kerry’s part will be fatal but with a new manager on board and with the chastening defeats of the past two seasons still fresh in their minds, it’s hard to see that being a factor. Mayo could well hit them hard early on but if Kerry are at full strength, they should win this game by 3-5 points.

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Killarney girls will answer Ireland’s call

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A trio of talented young Killarney rugby players have been called up to the Ireland U18 squad for the upcoming Six Nations festival in Wales.

Ava O’Malley, Fia Whelan and Emma Dunican have all been included in Matt Gill’s panel for the tournament, which will take place between March 29 and April 6. They will link up with their new teammates for three weekend training camps at the IRFU’s High Performance Centre on the Sport Ireland Campus in Dublin during the month of March.

Gill, the current Women’s Provincial Talent Coach for Leinster, will be assisted by Sana Govender, who has previously coached Munster Women’s teams.

“I’m really looking forward to continuing our Irish U18 Women’s Six Nations preparations and getting our camps underway,” the head coach said. “I’m excited to work with Sana and our management team, and to work with this incredibly talented group of players.”

O’Malley, Whelan and Dunican are products of Killarney RFC’s blossoming youth set-up and all three were on the U18.5 team that recently won the Munster League.

Including the Killarney girls, there are seven Munster-based players on the 35-woman squad with 15 hailing from Leinster, eight from Connacht and five from Ulster.

“It’s a very proud day for the girls, their families, teammates and coaches, and for Killarney RFC,” the club commented. “Best of luck, girls!”

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After six frustrating years in green and gold, latest setback was the last straw for Burns

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by Adam Moynihan

The news that Micheál Burns has left the Kerry panel raised a few eyebrows this week as Jack O’Connor indicated that the Dr Crokes man was unhappy with the amount of time he had been getting on the pitch.

On the surface it might seem a little rash. After all, Kerry have only played two competitive matches this year and the 27-year-old started one of them. But a closer look at his career in green and gold reveals that getting dropped for the Monaghan game a fortnight ago is the latest in a long line of setbacks that would take their toll on any footballer.

They say you make your own luck in sport and I’m sure Micheál himself would accept that he could have made more of some of the opportunities that he got, but all things considered he was unfortunate enough at times.

DEBUT

Burns first came to the attention of Kerry football supporters when he won the Man of the Match award in the 2014 All-Ireland minor final.

He eventually made his senior debut against Donegal in 2018, the same day Eamonn Fitzmaurice handed David Clifford and Seánie O’Shea their first starts at senior level. The diminutive but well-built wing forward kicked a point and he kept his place throughout the entire league campaign, scoring in six out of seven games (0-9 in total). It was an impressive return for a rookie.

However, he was still subbed off in six of those games, and this pattern would continue for much of his Kerry career. He started three times in the 2018 championship and scored 0-2 against both Cork and Kildare, yet he was taken off in all three matches.

2019 began with Crokes’ run to the All-Ireland Club final so he didn’t feature for Kerry in the league. His one start all year – against Meath in the Super 8s – ended on bad terms as Peter Keane subbed him off four minutes before half-time. Burns was visibly upset as he sat on the bench. It did seem like a harsh decision at the time. He didn’t play again that season.

The following year, 2020, turned out to be an annus horribilis for all of us but it actually started well for Burns. For my money he played his best football for his county in the pre-pandemic league matches. He wasn’t really known for his kicking at the time but he had clearly been working on this element of his game because he came out with all guns blazing.

After coming off the bench against Dublin in Croke Park, he started and scored in the next four matches, registering 0-2 against Galway, 0-1 against Tyrone, 0-3 against Meath and 0-1 against Mayo. Some of these points were real beauties. But he was still taken off in three of four games.

Covid was a disaster full stop but it couldn’t have come at a worse time for the industrious half forward from Killarney. He started both of the outstanding league fixtures when the season resumed in October but he couldn’t recapture that early season form. He didn’t see action in that disastrous defeat to Cork in the Munster semi-final as Keane started the match with a midfielder and a back in the half forward line.

FRUSTRATION

He started two games in the shortened 2021 season (against Dublin in the league and Tipperary in the championship) and once again his year ended in frustration when Keane left him lingering on the bench during Kerry’s extra time defeat to Tyrone in the All-Ireland semi-final.

Burns might have been expecting his name to be called when David Clifford went down with an injury at the end of normal time – he was the last remaining forward on the bench – but instead Kerry turned to Paul Geaney, who had already been subbed off earlier in the game. Burns was eventually brought on as Kerry’s tenth sub with just four minutes of extra time to go. Whatever way you spin it, that must have been tough to take.

Jack O’Connor returned in 2022 and Burns hasn’t started a championship match since, although he did come on when Kerry beat Galway in the All-Ireland final. He also saw game time in each of Kerry’s last five championship outings of 2023. He didn’t score in those appearances last year and the lack of scoring threat from Kerry’s half forwards was a talking point at season’s end, but it could have been quite different for Burns had things gone his way.

He might have had a tap-in goal against Tyrone if Seánie O’Shea was feeling generous, and against Derry he was all alone and in a far better position when David Clifford decided to stop up and take a point to give Kerry a two-point lead late on. They were small moments but if they fell his way they could have shifted the narrative in Burns’ favour.

He played against Derry in the 2024 season opener but he didn’t have his best game and was substituted at half-time. Then he didn’t play against Monaghan the following weekend. After experiencing an uncommon amount of setbacks in his six-year career, this was evidently the straw that broke the camel’s back.

COMMITMENTS

No doubt some will say that it’s an honour to even be on the Kerry panel and there’s no shame in playing second fiddle to the calibre of forwards that Burns was up against. They’re right, of course, but that doesn’t mean that the man has to be content with not starting. The commitments that come with intercounty football are enormous. It’s hard enough when you’re getting the rewards you feel you deserve; it’s much harder when you’re not.

Burns will go back to his club and I’m sure he will be an important player for them for years to come.

As for Kerry, having a squad member depart mid-season is ideally something that you wouldn’t want to happen but if a guy isn’t happy, maybe it’s for the best. I’m sure Micheál’s friends on the panel will be sad to see him go but it shouldn’t be a big distraction. They are a professional group and it will be business as usual against Mayo on Saturday night.

For Kerry and for Burns, life goes on.

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