AIB ALL-IRELAND CLUB SFC SEMI-FINAL:
KILMACUD CROKES v CROSSMAGLEN RANGERS
(Páirc Tailteann, Tomorrow 4.15, Live TG4)
JUST as Hollywood rolls out the red carpet for its annual Oscars jaunt, the club championship script-writers have conjured up the perfect penultimate script.
An All-Ireland semi-final between one long-established dynasty and another rising superpower. Yet the latter start as favourites, partly because they toppled the dynasty in the final two years ago. All of which gives us some added plot potential for revenge as a dish served cold.
Crossmaglen are the dynasty, of course, and Kilmacud are the ones who covet a place among the pantheon. And if the Dublin champions actually do go the distance, both tomorrow and on St Patrick's Day, then their claims to greatness will be beyond dispute.
Even winning Leinster constitutes a remarkable achievement for Crokes, given the cruel setbacks they have endured during this marathon campaign.
Essentially, they have conquered their province without five Dublin players -- their indomitable full-back (Rory O'Carroll), their half-back inspiration (Paul Griffin), their primary ball-winner (Darren Magee) as well as his hard-running midfield foil (Niall Corkery), plus the perennial goal threat of their inside speed merchant (Mark Davoren).
We'll hazard a guess that no other club in Ireland could have survived such cumulative losses yet Crokes -- while not exactly carrying on regardless -- have rolled up the sleeves and kept on digging out results.
Previous fringe players have grabbed their chance, epitomised by the towering Leinster final performance of midfielder Pat Duggan. Promising young guns have come of age -- Duggan's new midfield partner, Craig Dias, being the most eye-catching example.
Others who were already important first-team players have taken their contribution to a higher level -- Brian Kavanagh take a bow.
However, the real strength of this Kilmacud team lies in the collective. Physically, they have the strength to flourish at this time of year -- especially in defence. And mentally? Well, their record speaks for itself: in all three Leinster outings against Portlaoise, Garrycastle and then Rhode, they turned around half-time deficits to claim victory.
Tomorrow, however, looks like one of those occasions where falling behind could prove a bridge too far. During their halcyon days under Joe Kernan, Crossmaglen were past-masters at shutting up shop once they got ahead; they weren't half-bad at sneaking victory against the head either.
We suspect that this same principle still applies: you give Cross a head-start at your peril.
In personnel terms, the Ulster kingpins have changed pretty radically even since their 13-year domination of Armagh finally ended in 2009. The ageless Oisin McConville remains an improbably prolific font of scores (2-18 over the course of three Ulster outings and a quarter-final against Neasden Gaels); Paul Hearty is still manning the goals; while a quartet of Kernan brothers bring further county pedigree to the team.
But while elder statesmen like Francie Bellew and John McEntee have been used in cameo roles, a younger generation have come to the fore. Jamie Clarke has already proven his goalscoring class in the Armagh jersey and, along with McConville, he arguably poses the biggest threat to Kilmacud's defence.
In summary, Crossmaglen look to have rediscovered their lust for battle after briefly surrendering their Armagh crown. Moreover, they should be bursting with intent after losing their last three showdowns with Leinster opposition -- Portlaoise in 2005, St Vincent's in 2008 and Crokes in the 2009 decider.
However, Kilmacud's ability to overcome adversity is remarkable and they also possess a formidable bench. Tomorrow, their subs list will include Rory O'Carroll (back from France), Griffin (just back from his cruciate injury), Mark Vaughan (who loses out to Mark Coughlan because of his recurring back problem) and Ray Cosgrove, among others. These gilt-edged options might ultimately swing a very tight contest.
ODDS: Kilmacud 7/10, Draw 13/2, Crossmaglen 6/4
KILMACUD CROKES: D Nestor; K Nolan, Ross O'Carroll, C Lamb; C O'Sullivan, B McGrath, R Ryan; P Duggan, C Dias; L óg ó hEineachain, D Kelleher, A Morrissey; P Burke, B Kavanagh, M Coughlan.