Dubs to get first blood
Gilroy's men set to claim Rebels scalp at Croke Park
BELIEVE it or not, it's sometimes true what the old proverb says: all good things come to he who waits. Just ask the Cork footballers, one of the great modern-day sporting examples of long-suffering nearly men. But will the same cliché apply to Dublin this year?
That question won't be answered for many months yet but, in the meantime, expect plenty of significant pointers at Croke Park tonight.
Playing All-Ireland champions in league combat is always an instructive exercise. Cork are no different, even more so in the context that nine of their All-Ireland-winning 15 will start this evening.
Pat Gilroy may be playing with one hand tied behind his back, given the host of players he still can't call upon, but his depleted Dubs still played with massive commitment and conviction at the Athletic Grounds two weeks ago.
We'll refrain from referencing that oft-abused "Dublin swagger" but they certainly showed a refreshing facility for blending attack with the defensive game-plan that became their stock-in-trade last season.
Now for a necessary caveat: newly promoted Armagh aren't in the same ball park as Cork.
As if to underline that fact, Conor Counihan's men have also hit the ground running this February. Their opening-round clash against the perennial enemy was laced with an abundance of quality points from play -- Kerry may have scored more of them, but ultimately the magnificent place-kicking of Donncha O'Connor and especially Daniel Goulding sealed the narrowest of injury-time wins.
Therein lies a warning for the Dubs. They won't need Pat Gilroy to remind them that a loss of defensive discipline ultimately wrecked their All-Ireland ambitions last August.
It will be intriguing to see how Dublin's totally revamped defence copes in the wider confines of Croke Park. Just one of their championship 'six' -- Michael Fitzsimons (pictured) -- starts tonight. Prior to the Armagh game, Dublin diehards were fretting over their patched-up rearguard; afterwards Gilroy pronounced himself delighted with how they coped.
Much may depend on whether Michael Darragh Macauley and Denis Bastick can stop Cork's two giants -- Aidan Walsh and the recalled Alan O'Connor -- establishing a strong midfield platform. If Cork get a grip around the middle, they have an abundance of scoring options -- four of their All-Ireland attack, plus Colm O'Neill.
On the flip side, the Dublin attack has been motoring impressively in recent weeks whereas a weakened Cork defence struggled in the first half against Kerry. They are boosted by the return of Michael Shields and Paudie Kissane, but Graham Canty is still out and they are now without Eoin Cadogan (hurling this weekend) and the suspended Noel O'Leary.
The most encouraging aspect of Dublin's Armagh victory was the fact that Bernard Brogan did what Bernard does best (scoring 1-3 from play) and yet it wasn't a one-man show up front. Dublin will need more of the same if they're to progress this year, and that's why it's important that the buzzing Kevin McManamon and Diarmuid Connolly maintain their recent form against stronger opposition.
In that scenario, a narrow but significant victory for the Dubs cannot be discounted. Either way, both sides could well end up back in Croker come the Division One final on April 24.
ODDS: Dublin 6/5, Draw 13/2, Cork 10/11
VERDICT: Dublin (by a whisker)
DUBLIN: S Cluxton; A Hubbard, S Murray, M Fitzsimons; D Lally, J McCarthy, P Casey (capt); MD Macauley, D Bastick; P Flynn, K McManamon, D Connolly; T Quinn, E O'Gara, B Brogan.
CORK: P O'Shea; R Carey, J O'Sullivan, M Shields; D O'Sullivan, P Kissane, C O'Driscoll; A O'Connor, A Walsh; P O'Neill, P Kelly, F Goold; D Goulding, C O'Neill, D O'Connor.