Ciaran Whelan: Blues must put lessons into action
Dubs can recapture Sam if they are wiser from semi-final woes
THE 2015 Championship is up and running with every team around the country preparing to embark on their respective campaigns.
Looking ahead to this year's All-Ireland Championship, the top table remains unchanged. For the last few years, a handful of counties have dominated their provinces so who are the contender and pretenders for 2015?
THE CONTENDERS . . .
IF we were to believe the hype, Kerry will be stronger and more formidable in 2015. With Colm Cooper, Tommy Walsh and Paul Galvin all returning to the fold, Eamon Fitzmaurice has a wealth of options as he embarks on the defence of Sam.
So could you argue that Kerry's hand is being over-played a small bit just as Dublin's was this time last year?
Could you argue that the Kerry defence is still suspect and lacks strength in depth? Could you argue Kerry won a handy All-Ireland in 2014 avoiding the Dubs along the way? (A statement that always raises the blood pressure in the Kingdom!)
Whatever the arguments, Fitzmaurice is one of the most tactical astute managers in the game. He proved his worth by tailoring his cloth for every opposition, devising different game-plans depending on their opponents. Nice teams that play open attractive football do not win championships anymore and the Kingdom learned that the hard way through the noughties by developing a cynical streak when need.
Kerry have the strongest midfield in the country and this sector is supported by a powerful forward line. These factors combined with the astuteness of Fitzmaurice makes the Kingdom viable contenders once again. A final against Dublin would settle some old scores but history shows that defending Sam is very tough.
JIM GAVIN'S men will go into this campaign as favourites once again for All-Ireland success. When Dublin bring their 'A' game, they are simply unbeatable.
Their performance against Cork in the league decider reiterated that when Dublin play with a high intensity game in the middle third of the field, they can suffocate the opposition.
A similar path to the All-Ireland Series lies ahead which could leave them vulnerable once again come August.
This year's Leinster Championship looks a done deal for the Dubs and once they avoid any major blips of complacency the Delaney Cup should remain in Parnell Park.
Jim Gavin used this year's league to experiment with his system of play with more focus on the defensive shape in the early rounds.
In that regard it is possible that Dublin have not shown their full hand in that regard and they will be acutely aware that a Plan B may be required as the year progresses depending on who they meet along the way.
If Dublin have learned the lessons from last year and they can adapt when needed then Sam will 'be coming home'.
THE 2012 All-Ireland champions have not gone away just yet.
Whilst some of their marquee players are in the twilight of their careers, there could be one more kick left in Donegal.
Usually a change of management in a county can bring a period of instability particularly after a regime of success. Donegal is different though.
The influence of Jim McGuinness on this group of players means that Rory Gallagher is now building from a culture of leadership that was ingrained into the players during his tenure.
Gallagher has a like-minded approach to an effective game-plan which has made the transition seamless. Gallagher's only challenge was to get early momentum and 'buy in' from his players.
As a result Donegal fielded their strongest team available throughout the league. Championships are not won in spring and with a lack in strength in depth and the potential for four tough games in the Ulster Championship fatigue could become factor as the season progresses.
Another provincial title is a real possibility, but back door progression could not be ruled out. Donegal are a team everyone will want to avoid come August.
THERE are signs that the gap is closing in Connacht with both Galway and Roscommon rebuilding with promise.
Mayo have been the perennial bridesmaids in recent years and few could argue that with the break of a ball here and there they may have reached the promised land.
Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly have been charged with the job of getting this Mayo team over line.
Either there are no signs of further progression or they are doing a remarkable job in dampening expectations by not showing their full hand in recent months.
Their lack of firepower up front and the absence of Cillian O'Connor for the first couple of games could leave them vulnerable to a mid-summer ambush.
Connelly recently expressed a view of naivety about Mayo's approach to modern football playing one-on-one so a change to their strategy could be on the horizon.
Nobody would deny this Mayo team an All-Ireland success but they may have just missed the boat.
THE PRETENDERS . . .
IF you have backed Cork for All-Ireland success there is fair chance you have thrown the bookies docket in the bin.
Time and time again in recent years Cork have crumbled each time you think they are on an upward curve.
Their most recent collapse and lack of leadership leaves them mentally broken going into this year's campaign.
The still remain dangerous purely based on their ability on any given day. The broader criticism of this team in recent weeks might provoke a backlash but beating Kerry in Killarney in July looks beyond them.
THE Red Handers will be buoyed by the recent success of their under-21s but a big challenge lies ahead for Mickey Harte this summer.
Harte had earned his stripes in Tyrone history but it is questionable whether his influence is on the wane.
Defections from the squad and a poor league has added pressure ahead of this weekend's opener.
Tyrone are always capable of pulling a performance out of the hat but the lack of consistency has become a problem. They will not go down without a fight and Tyrone are a team to be avoided if they take the back door path to Croke Park.
IN Monaghan they know how to fight above their weight and Malachy O'Rourke is an unsung hero in that regard.
Whilst national success if firmly beyond this current Monaghan team, they will have their sights set on another Ulster title if they get out of Breffni Park with a victory on Sunday week. Could be caught cold by a team on the rise before the quarter finals.
THE NEWCOMERS . . .
BACK-to-back leagues promotions and success at Under-21 level means that Roscommon are a team on the rise with momentum and belief.
John Evans and Liam Kearns will need to be on their guard away to Sligo (presuming the Rossies overcome London in Ruislip) in the Connacht semi-final. If they come away with a victory they will fancy their chances in Connacht.
Enda Smith, Diarmuid Murtagh, the in-form Senan Kilbride, with the option of springing Donie Shine are a dangerous inside line that will cause most good full-back lines lots of problems.
Watch this space; Roscommon could make the last eight.
KIERAN McGEENEY will have his team prepared well and will be looking to build on the momentum of league promotion.
Armagh developed the siege mentality last year and they came within a point of Donegal in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
Although on the tough side of the Ulster draw, they will believe they can win a provincial title.