National Football League Division Two South Round One Preview
By Matthew Hurley
The shortened National Football League for 2021 has been split up into North and South for the season. For Cork, Kildare, Clare and Laois, is an opportunity for gaining a promotion play-off place that leads to Division 1 football. Added to that a confirmed place in the Sam Maguire Cup next season, as a result, the League becomes more competitive than it has ever been. Both Cork and Kildare are favourites to finish in the promotion play-off places, but as we’ve seen down through the years with Cork and Cavan’s relegations in 2019 and 2020 respectively, nothing is guaranteed or taken for granted in this division. It starts this weekend with two intriguing games, Cork v Kildare and Clare v Laois.
Cork v Kildare
Venue: Semple Stadium
Day: Saturday 15th May
Channel: Eir Sport 2
This game has been moved to Semple Stadium in Thurles due to the Rebel County’s COVID Breach back in January, with Ronan McCarthy’s troops having no home league matches this season. The Cork manager is back on the touchline on Saturday however, after a 12-week ban.
It’s fair to say both sides have had their fair share of changes to their panels over the last few months, with Cork losing Paul Kerrigan, Tomas Clancy (Fermoy) and James Loughrey due to retirement. They also will be without Killian O’Hanlon and Aiden Browne due to ACL injuries. Meanwhile Tommy Moolick, Keith Cribbin and Johnny Byrne have all retired for Kildare. Mattie Byrne and Ben McCormack have stepped away due to work commitments while Fergal Conway, Niall Kelly and James Robinson are all injury doubts for the Lilywhites.
Despite Cork losing home advantage, their recent record in Thurles has been excellent, with the Rebels winning all 5 of their most recent games there in League and Championship. U20 star men Blake Murphy and Mark Cronin are set to be added to the panel. With the aforementioned retirements, Ian Maguire and Mark Collins will add much needed experience for this campaign.
Kildare have won their last 3 competitive games against the Rebels, including in 2019, where they won by 1-10 to 0-10. Manager Jack O’Connor will be looking for revenge against the Rebels, after the Cork U20 side hammered his Kerry outfit by 11 points in 2019. The Lillywhite’s defensive issues might be a worry for O’Connor’s side though, conceding 5 second half goals against Meath in last year’s Leinster Semi-Final. With this in mind, star forwards Daniel Flynn, Jimmy Hyland and Darragh Kirwan will have to step up.
Cork’s 2020 ended in disappointment, with a shock defeat to Tipperary, but if Ronan McCarthy’s men can show the form from last years Division 3 campaign and the aggression they displayed against Kerry last year, it should be enough to drive them over the line in this one. Cian O’Neill, the assistant coach for the Munster side, coming up against his former team for the first time should also be very interesting to see.
Clare v Laois
Venue: Cusack Park
Day: Sunday 16th May
The 2 underdogs of this southern division come head-to-head at Cusack Park this Sunday, with both sides thinking of the game as a must win to boost survival hopes. The last time these sides met, it was the Leinster side coming out on top by 1-12 to 1-11 in the same venue. Both sides came within touching distance of relegation last season, with Laois coming 5th and Clare 6th.
Since then, Laois have had a huge boost with both Kingston brothers returning to the panel. In fact the only big players they’ve lost are Stephen Attride (travelling) and Graham Brody, albeit the keeper who replaced the latter Neil Corbett has done exceptional in games such as Longford and Dublin in last year’s Leinster Championship. Added to the experience of Ross Munnelly and Mark Timmons, Mike Quirke can call upon exciting young players such as Mark Barry, Ronan Coffey and Diarmuid Whelan.
Clare on the other hand have lost star men Gary Brennan and Gordan Kelly to retirement, as well as Dermot Coughlan to injury. However, lethal finishers like Joe McGann can boost the chances for Colm Collins’ men with performances similar to that against Fermanagh last season. Emmett McMahon, Gavin Cooney and Cillian Rouine are also young players to watch for the Banner. The future looks bright for Clare, as shown by their performances in both U20 and Minor Munster Championships in 2020, the question is whether these new players are up to the pressures of senior level.
The midfield battle of Ciaran Russell and Cathal O’Connor against Kieran Lillis and John O’Loughlin should be a very intriguing battle to watch, and it will be very close. However, if forwards such as McGann and Cooney can get the goals Clare need, like they have been doing constantly over the last year, the Banner should edge it. A young McGann at full forward should have too much speed for a 35-year-old Timmons for example and Collins’ valuable experience over his counterpart Quirke will also be a key factor in deciding this game.