It can be argued that familiarity has taken the edge off this once great rivalry, but the 18th Championship meeting of Cork and Kerry this decade has all the ingredients to be a potential epic on Leeside.
Last Sunday’s draw was the standout game of the 2009 Championship to date, with Kerry storming back from five points down in the last 15 minutes to claim a dramatic draw.
Bryan Sheehan, who was omitted from the starting XV by manager Jack O’Connor, came to Kerry’s rescue with five points, including the leveler in the fourth minute of injury time, after his introduction shortly after the break.
The genial Caherciveeen man has taken no such chances this time, as Sheehan, a brilliant free-taker, has been included from the start with captain Darran O’Sullivan the man to lose out.
The big talking point all week has been the availability of Tommy Walsh, but the brilliant 20-year-old has been named in the side at corner forward, despite picking up an ankle injury down in Killarney next week.
Whether Walsh actually starts is another matter; the suspicion being that O’Connor may have included the 2008 Young Footballer of the Year to keep his counterpart, Conor Counihan, guessing.
The loss of Walsh on top of the other half of the “Twin Towers,” Kieran Donaghy, would have been a massive blow going into a game in which Kerry will need all their scoring power against a side that is as stingy as they come in defense.
O’Connor, the Kerry boss, has made a number of other changes in an apparent concession that he got his team selection last week wrong. Darragh Ó Sé, who replaced Walsh early on, is included from the start and will partner Tommy Griffin in a new-look midfield.
The Micheal Quirke-Tadhg Kennelly experiment didn’t work last week and the former Sydney Swans man goes to wing-forward and the immobile Quirke is left on the bench.
Darragh Ó Sé, who has been struggling to build up the required fitness levels after an injury disrupted start to the year, will relish the prospect of going head-to-head with Nicholas Murphy, whom he has physically dominated on several occasions in recent years.
Aidan O’Mahony has also been returned to center-back where he should tail Cork’s supremely athletic Pearse O’Neill, who scored a fine goal last week. O’Mahony will be charged with containing the Aghada man, but more importantly, he will hope to shore up a defense that was alarming porous through the middle last week.
Cork manager Counihan has the luxury of naming an unchanged starting team, with Ray Carey again missing out after suffering an injury in the warm-up last week. John Miskella gets the nod despite suffering with a hamstring strain all week.
Cork had two physical recovery sessions in Páirc Ui Chaoimh this week, but you suspect that Counihan will have spent much of the week tending to his players’ fragile mental state after effectively throwing away a place in the Munster final last week.
The Rebels were by far the better team and may not get the chance to build up such a commanding lead at a vital time in the game again. However, Cork have the look of a team overflowing with quality in defense and attack, and if they can reproduce their recent form, the home crowd should be left much the happier on Saturday evening.
Kerry, of course, will still play a huge part in deciding where Sam Maguire winters this year but the suspicion is that Cork won’t make the same mistakes for the second time in six days and a repeat of last year’s Munster final outcome at the same venue is a possibility.
Without Donaghy, Kerry can’t mix their game up as much as they would like while Cork have the perfect man in reserve if they want to pull the game out of the fire – Michael Cussen. And with under-21 star Colm O’Neill also pushing hard for a starting spot, Cork’s superior attacking options tips the balance in their favor.