Kerry and Dublin rivalry may be lopsided but it is a rivalry, not like the All Blacks and us

Many GAA counties share with rugby the disadvantages of limited demographics and the tyranny of tradition

I don’t want to sound like a character from the pages of Flann O’Brien but leaving Cusack Park in Ennis on Sunday afternoon and skimming the radio waves from Lansdowne Road, it never felt Ireland’s lead in the rugby international – five points to indemnify a whole 10 minutes – would prove adequate. Nothing would convince me, short of the final whistle.

Like many a fatalist I didn’t want to savour the moment; I just wanted the thing over.

Whereas it is true that even amidst the caste systems and traditional power dynamics of Gaelic games there is no real equivalent to the All Black tyranny, the existence of unbalanced sporting relationships is still strongly apparent.

I remember at the media event in Killarney before the 2011 All-Ireland discussing Dublin's then dauntingly immutable championship relationship with Kerry. The mood was best summed up by Conor McKeon of the Herald: "In the GAA, the team that always wins always wins".


The aphorism would – bizarrely – prove misplaced a few days later but I was in full agreement even if unable to express it as succinctly.

Of course the relationship between the counties has slightly realigned since then but Dublin's record remains lower than 30 per cent, eight from 27 since 1892. In other words, for all of the hype that attends the fixture it has an unequal history.

28 and zip
Ireland have faced the All Blacks in virtually the same number of fixtures – over just 13 fewer years – as Dublin-Kerry and yet are 28 and zip, zero per cent. The country's record against the other Southern Hemisphere powers more resembles Dublin's against Kerry, 19 and 29 per cent from 21 and 31 matches with South Africa and Australia respectively.

This example may be extreme but how do these relationships develop? What counts as a surprise and how do such events come to be so rare and resistant to upset?

What there is in common with the rugby example is the tradition at the heart of various pairings. Some counties are stronger than others and that disparity has evolved throughout history. Like Ireland in rugby, smaller counties are stuck with restrictive demographics and a history of struggling against top teams.

The more often one county loses to another, the harder it becomes to balance the psychological terms of engagement. Brendan Hackett, whose range of sporting involvement spans athletics, psychology and intercounty management, made the point a long time ago that the mental formation of players in less successful counties is frequently negative.

He outlined a scenario where an enthusiastic kid is brought to a championship match by adults, maybe father and uncles. Whatever about the mood on the way to the destination the recriminations and despondency on the return journey – annually reinforced – have to take their toll.

Creating the environment for a “shock” becomes correspondingly difficult and increasingly so, as time goes by.

Last year there was a celebration to commemorate the centenary of the Antrim football teams who had reached successive All-Ireland finals – becoming the only county to play two in the one year because the 1911 championship didn’t conclude until the following year – and along the way inflicted a record defeat on Kerry.

Even allowing the Kerry "brand" wasn't as intimidating at that stage having won just the first three of the county's football All-Irelands – the achievement was still considered worth commemorating a century later.

Kerry have been integral to so many upsets simply because of the number of occasions they go into matches as favourites, so their defeats are often an historic day for someone else. In a list of top 10 championship upsets I compiled some years ago, half involved the Kerry footballers.

Counties also appear to value All-Irelands that little bit more highly if they can beat Kerry along the way. That intense motivation plays a part in creating the right environment and so does its corollary.

Kerry, like all high-achieving counties, frequently have to guard against the menace of complacency.

Clare beat them in the 1992 Munster final to secure their first provincial win since 1917. “How could Kerry not be complacent when they’d been beating Clare out the gate for the last 75 years,” was the brisk response of former Offaly manager Eugene McGee to the insistence that the favourites had guarded against over-confidence.

Of course, being aware of the dangers of the unexpected isn’t always enough. Coincidentally a sixth entry in the above top 10 upsets also concerned Kerry but in this case as authors of the surprise.

Twenty years ago the county's hurlers won a first senior championship match since 1926, beating Waterford, whose manager George Leahy had warned his team on the bus beforehand they didn't want to be in the papers the next day as Kerry's first championship victims in nearly 70 years.

Clearly from a rugby perspective the distinction would be made that whereas Kerry get beaten by someone most years, the All Blacks have yet to prove in any way vulnerable in Test matches with Ireland.

Neither is there much consolation in the reality that for all the lists you can compile to detail Kerry's famous defeats, no one puts much effort into commemorating the times they nearly got beaten.

The passing of Fr Alec Reid has reminded everyone of his crucial role in the peace process but less well-known was his hurling background. A native of Nenagh, he was a member of the Tipperary minor hurling panel which won the All-Ireland title in 1949, setting up the last occasion on which the county completed the senior-minor All-Ireland double. My thanks to Joe Tuohy and Ger Ryan for bringing this to my attention.