CONFIRMATION of the enormity of the challenge facing Cork in the All-Ireland SFC Group 1 phase should become evident following the clash of the champions in Killarney tomorrow.
There, in what is expected to be a thronged Fitzgerald Stadium, Sam Maguire Cup holders Kerry embark on a journey to attempt to successfully defend their title against Division 1 kingpins Mayo at 3pm with Tyrone’s Sean Hurson in charge.
Cork and Louth who start their campaigns in Navan a week tomorrow will be close observers of a game involving the number 1 team in the country and a Mayo side with potential to be there or thereabouts at season end.
Given that three teams will emerge from each of the four groups to contest the knock-out stages, it’s not difficult to detect a note of cynicism about the place considering after all 16 teams play three games each only four will exit the championship. Does it really take 48 games to ensure a dozen sides remain in the hunt for Sam?
It’s a factor worth considering going into the weekend’s action because, in effect, losing two and winning just once could be enough for teams to keep their summer moving in the right direction, suggesting there may be an absence of a cut-and-thrust approach.
For those with genuine All-Ireland winning credentials, this is the first of possibly six games in pursuit of the holy grail and planning to peak at the right time might indicate not all teams will be at 100% capacity initially.
Yet, there’s enough evidence to deflect attention away from anything but a block buster of an opening for a variety of reasons.
Kerry, for example, have still to be tested after strolling Munster in first gear, compiling 5-39 from their two games against Division 4 outfit Tipperary and third-tier Clare and enjoying a combined winning margin of 34 points.
Mayo will provide that examination because, they, too, have issues going into the tie, chiefly that they’ve not played for six weeks after losing a Connacht quarter-final to Roscommon by 2-8 to 0-10 a week after being crowned league champions.
Manager Kevin McStay will demand a response from that unexpected set-back and Mayo should be fresh and keen to ensure Kerry will have to be close to their best to prevail.
A huge band of travelling supporters from the west is expected to converge on the Kingdom and once the game gets underway there will be nothing else on players’ minds only winning. It should be a belter.
And it’s the same in Group 2 which begins with Connacht champions Galway, bidding to go one better than last season, when losing to Kerry in the All-Ireland final, host Tyrone with Meath’s David Gough keeping control.
Armagh and Westmeath are the other counties in this group and it’s fair to presume the Leinster County, who qualified as Tailteann Cup holders will be the whipping boys here.
Tyrone are in the same position as Mayo in not having played in five weeks after pipped by Monaghan by 2-17 to 1-18 in a thrilling Ulster quarter-final and will relish the opportunity of a high-profile game to get back on track.
A little bit of history will be made, when Galway referee James Molloy throws in the ball to start the Clare-Donegal Group 4 game in Ennis at 2pm because that will be the opening salvo in the new format.
The Banner fancy their chances here in an all-Ulster group of Derry and Monaghan because Donegal are in disarray and Clare are difficult to beat at home.
FIXTURES: TONIGHT: Connacht MFC semi-final: Mayo v Roscommon, Castlebar, 7pm.
TOMORROW: All-Ireland SFC: Group 4: Clare v Donegal, Cusack Park, Ennis, 2pm.
Group 1: Kerry v Mayo, Fitzgerald Stadium, Killarney, 3pm.
Group 2: Galway v Tyrone, Pearse Stadium, Salthill, 5.15.
Tailteann Cup: Group 1: London v Cavan, Ruislip, 2pm; Laois v Offaly, Portlaoise, 7pm.
Group 2: Waterford v Meath, Fraher Field, Dungarvan, 6.30.
Group 3: Carlow v Limerick, Cullen Park, 3pm; Longford v Wicklow, Pearse Park, 5pm.
Group 4: Wexford v Antrim, Wexford Park, 5.30; Leitrim v Fermanagh, Carrick-on-Shannon, 6pm.
Ulster MFC semi-finals: Derry v Donegal, 1pm; Tyrone v Monaghan, Roslea, 1pm.
SUNDAY: All-Ireland SFC: Group 3: Sligo v Kildare, Markievicz Park, 2.30.
Tailteann Cup: Group 2: Tipperary v Down, Semple Stadium, 1.45.