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Wednesday 13 December 2017

Rebels send Jack packing

Counihan hails 'mature' Cork as steely side show Kingdom the back door

SO then, has the music died for Kerry or is their veteran conductor, Jack O'Connor, ready to become the first manager to complete a hat-trick of All-Irelands via the scenic route?

That question was on many lips in the wake of yesterday's intriguing, if far-from-classic, Munster SFC semi-final at Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

It ended in a 0-17 to 0-12 victory for Cork, who are now unbackable favourites to land their first provincial crown since 2009 - and not just because they face Division Four opposition, Clare, at the Limerick Gaelic Grounds on July 8.

"We were a bit more mature than we had been on previous days," ventured Conor Counihan, reflecting on Cork's first SFC victory over the old enemy in exactly three years.

"Maybe it was the experience or the fact we haven't won a Munster championship in a number of years, but we've made no secret of the fact that we'd like to do that. The fact that Kerry were in our way meant there was a job to be done."

That job was eventually completed with cool-headed efficiency, rather than style, as 'Man of the Match' Donncha O'Connor and inside partner Colm O'Neill shared 11 of Cork's final tally.

On this evidence, they and Dublin head the early-summer form charts ... while Kerry face into an uncertain short-term qualifier future. Then again, it was the same story in 2006 and '09, when Kerry also succumbed to their Leeside rivals down south only to embark on redemptive 'back door' voyages of All-Ireland discovery.

The memory of how Kerry reinvented themselves then will lead many observers to back off on the obituaries.

Cork, more than anyone, will convince themselves that they haven't seen the back of their Croke Park nemesis.

For all that, Kerry are three years older than they were in 2009, and they have now produced three underwhelming displays on the spin - against Mayo in their league semi-final, Tipp and now Cork in Munster.

The auguries look even more negative when you consider that Kieran Donaghy and Paul Galvin, Footballers of the Year in '06 and '09 respectively, were hauled ashore in the home straight at Páirc Uí Chaoimh yesterday ... the symbolism wasn't lost on those Cork supporters who reserved two of their loudest cheers for each substitution.

It was against this backdrop that some would suggest that the music had indeed died for some of Kerry's ageing greats.

Cue the inevitable post-match question for O'Connor.

"Is he becoming the be-all and end-all?" the Kerry boss riposted, having already fielded an earlier TV query about the RTé pundit Martin Carney's summation that the music has died for this Kerry team.

"We think there's a fair bit left in this squad ... we'll see. It depends on the attitude fellas come back with."

O'Connor then signed off on a more defiant note, declaring: "The team will be written off but we've been down that road before ... we feel that if the players keep believing, they'll be okay." Glass half-full Kerry punters who believe their manager can cite several mitigating factors for this defeat -- starting with a hat-trick of spurned goal chances, two in a first period that finished with Cork holding a barely deserved 0-7 to 0-4 lead.

Colm Cooper was blocked down by Michael Shields, having taken a pass from the better-placed Donaghy, seemingly lacking confidence to pull the trigger himself.

Donaghy himself was then denied at point-blank range by Cork 'keeper Alan Quirke who, in the 50th minute, saved impressively with his feet from Declan O'Sullivan.

It might have been a different game if Kerry had taken even one of these chances.

Or if Bryan Sheehan hadn't been ruled out with a knee injury: four deadball attempts well within Sheehan's compass were missed by Cooper, goalkeeper Brendan Kealy (two 45s) and finally, improbably, Galvin.

Even in Sheehan's absence, Kerry clearly won the kickout battle (27-18 by our count) which seems slightly perverse when you consider Seamus Scanlon's half-time exit and Anthony Maher's less-than-dominant display.

So, how then did Cork win with - dare we say it - a degree of comfort? Counihan cited their maturity and composure, which was certainly evident in the home straight as the Rebels kept possession and Kerry, by contrast, ran out of ideas.

Their wealth of options is another plus - Fintan Goold (foot infection) and Pearse O'Neill were ruled out through injury beforehand, but it helps when you have big-name replacements like Nicholas Murphy and Ciarán Sheehan, plus Daniel Goulding who enhanced his starting claims with a brace off the bench.

Kerry's back-up talent doesn't run so deep, although two of their better performers were half-time replacements Johnny Buckley and James O'Donoghue, who tallied 0-2 and had his fingerprints over three more Kerry scores.

But, on a day when Kerry's marquee forwards were fitful, a couple of livewire rookies were never going to win it on their own.

This was no classic of the Cork/Kerry genre but, having lost three championship fixtures on the spin to their green-and-gold oppressor, Cork needed to make a statement of intent here.

"The more times you beat Kerry, the happier you will be," concluded an obviously delighted Donncha O'Connor.

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