GAA league final previews: Formidable Kerry look to set a marker

Kerry v Mayo and Cork v Waterford in Division One deciders

SATURDAY

AFL Division Four
Cavan v Tipperary, Croke Park, 2.30
– All's well that ends well. The respective Ulster and Munster champions from two years ago went into last year's Division Three as hot favourites to win promotion. Instead they travelled in the other direction and although even hotter promotion favourites this year, it wasn't all plain sailing – for Tipp in particular.

When they met in Breffni, though, Tipperary got the win that redeemed their poor start to the campaign, which they turned around to the extent that they have won the last five matches. Cavan’s form has slipped a little and they’re missing Oisín Kiernan, a big influence at wing back.

In the recent match, Tipp were far more efficient in taking their scores but the final fixture against Waterford suggested Cavan had restored their scoring touch. They will also have All-Star Thomas Galligan available again. It's enough of a corrective for them to turn the tables.

Verdict: Cavan

AFL Division Three
Louth v Limerick, Croke Park, 4.45 – Deserved winners of the league's most competitive division, these counties had contrasting progression to promotion. Louth under Mickey Harte started with just a point from two fixtures and he says that the third match, against Limerick, won after trailing by five, lit the fuse on the promotion-winning campaign.

They have been very competitive and in the manager's words on LM FM "never coasted through any game". As ever Sam Mulroy has been their chief instrument of destruction but former AFL man Ciarán Byrne has also chipped in.

When Limerick lost that match in UL, it derailed a fine two-win opening, and when they lost to Westmeath, promotion was in jeopardy but they finished the campaign strongly. Louth have the more consistent form coming into this but Josh Ryan and Hugh Bourke caused them trouble in February and could do so again.

Verdict: Limerick

AHL Division 2A
Down v Westmeath, FBD Semple Stadium, 4.45
– Down did really well to make the final with a comeback defeat of Kerry, who Westmeath then dispatched in the semi-final but their opponents have more experience of big days and can look forward to the Leinster round robin.

Verdict: Westmeath

AHL Division One
Cork v Waterford, FBD Semple Stadium, 7.15
– Both teams will have taken a good deal out of the league campaign. Cork rehabilitated after last summer's All-Ireland trauma, got the win over Limerick, and have looked fast and on song in most of their matches. Liam Cahill has worked hard to deepen the panel and can now be said to have options in most positions.

They also both had impressive wins in their semi-finals, setting up a first meeting at this stage in seven years.

The blot on Waterford’s copybook was the lack of engagement in Nowlan Park when they were under pressure and understrength but maybe they get a pass for already having all but qualified.

They opened their campaign with a draw in Parnell Park against a Dublin team hopping after a big Walsh Cup win but salvaged a draw, in the process impressing Dubs full forward Ronan Hayes.

“They play a style very similar to ourselves: tackling and intensity and their want to turn you over and punish you on that. They’ve nailed that down this year and really hurt teams. They hurt Wexford with their running game (in the semi-final) and got in behind them.”

A feature of their performances has been the scoring-machine exploits of Stephen Bennett, who returns after missing the Kilkenny and Wexford matches.

Calum Lyons returns but Jamie Barron is still not ready and may not return until the championship is under way. Conor Prunty is also back in what is a very strong selection by Cahill as he pursues a first win in a third final after the Munster and All-Ireland defeats by Limerick in 2020.

Of course they are also short Austin Gleeson after his red card last week, a suspension unchallenged by the county presumably on the grounds that Cahill wants to see how they will manage in his absence but also to make the point that this stuff can’t be endlessly tolerated.

Cork weathered a bad start against Kilkenny and absorbed physical pressure without getting knocked off their stride. Darragh Fitzgibbon’s performance, recognised by the MOTM award, included the assassin’s touch that finished off Kilkenny.

A couple of injuries in defence will be a concern for Kieran Kingston but they sealed the deal with Patrick Horgan having left the field and still registered the necessary scores.

They are still a work in progress whereas Waterford now need something tangible to go with all of the plaudits for being “the second best” team of the past two years.

They have clearly added a goal scoring sensibility and look primed. Cork have some in-form forwards but probably not their opponents’ all-court power game.

Verdict: Waterford

SUNDAY

AFL Division Two
Roscommon v Galway, Croke Park, 1.45
– Last week's foot off the pedal by Pádraic Joyce duly led to Roscommon taking advantage. In fairness to the Galway manager, he had selection issues with the injury to Shane Walsh, another picked up by Damien Comer against Derry and Paul Conroy seeing a red card the same day.

Walsh is still missing, making this a difficult league for him between injury and questionable form, but Conroy and Comer are back. Promotion was a deserved outcome for both teams and Roscommon are the only undefeated team in the whole league.

Galway have the imminence of a summer-defining championship opener against Mayo in a few weeks but there wouldn't be much to be gained by focusing too far ahead and getting beaten and Joyce has named a strong team, making seven changes for Sunday.

Conroy's return and the naming of Niall Daly, eye-catching in defeat last week, and Matthew Tierney in the half forwards gives Galway good presence around the middle and Rob Finnerty's return strengthens the attack.

Roscommon have looked more incisive this season and impressively put their shadow opponents through the wringer a week ago. Cian McKeon impressed in attack along with the more-established Ciarán Murtagh and Conor Cox. Galway though will be here to pick up momentum.

Verdict: Galway

AFL Division One
Kerry v Mayo, Croke Park, 4.0
– Coincidence or otherwise, Jack O'Connor's All-Irelands with Kerry have all been preceded by league titles. You'd imagine he'd like to keep it that way and a good performance here will galvanise the team even with the prospects of a humdrum provincial campaign.

A slight brush with anxiety happened a week ago in Killarney when Tyrone successfully raided Fitzgerald Stadium for the first time in a generation. The Red Hands springing free of any potential relegation was one thing but spoiling Kerry's 100 per cent record was another – as was the goal by Darren McCurry, the only Kerry have conceded from play.

The overall record suggests improvement in key areas but is centrefield settled yet and is there an adequate structure to support and make the best of David Clifford, whose scoring was again excellent? Tony Brosnan has showed encouragingly. That will all become clear in the fullness of time but this weekend sees a renewal of the 2019 final, which ended is emphatic victory for James Horan's men but signifying not much of significance in the season that followed.

When they met in Tralee, it was a triumph of perseverance for Kerry as much as anything as they kept failing to put Mayo away. The Westerners have issues of their own. Tommy Conroy’s absence this year puts a lot of focus on Ryan O’Donoghue, who has stood out in attack.

Cillian O’Connor is nearly back or not depending on what you hear but for Mayo supporters, the sooner the better. Horan has trialled a lot of players but it’s not clear that the results will yield a radically refreshed team.

Lee Keegan spoke persuasively of Mayo being in no position to pick and choose silverware but it may be a case of Kerry just wanting it more, as the last thing O’Connor would want is to be processing a big-stage defeat as he prepares for a very pressurised championship.

Verdict: Kerry

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