As the Allianz Leagues throw-in, our writers look ahead to the major storylines which will dominate the weekend's action.
Dublin, too, face captaincy conundrum
The Kerry captaincy protocol has been making plenty of headlines but Dessie Farrell has an interesting call to make on who skippers the reigning five-in-a-row All-Ireland champions against Kerry on Saturday evening and beyond
With Stephen Cluxton ruled out until the end of March as he recovers from a shoulder operation, it means Farrell may kick for touch on the issue and appoint a captain for the duration of the League. Jonny Cooper led the team against Monaghan for their League opener in Clones this time last year as he did for a few League matches in Cluxton’s absence, as well as the Super 8 clash against Tyrone in Omagh last summer. It was Jim Gavin’s vice-captain who also deputised for Cluxton following his nasty injury in the 2018 Leinster Championship win over Longford.
Cooper is a Na Fianna clubmate of Farrell’s although the new manager, for political reasons, might prefer somebody else. Ciarán Kilkenny comes to the mind given how impressive he has been as the “point guard” for Dublin while Brian Fenton’s leadership skills are obvious too. James McCarthy is another and, along with Mick Fitzsimons and Paddy Andrews, the man with the longest career outside Cluxton.
Farrell has already shown, though, he isn’t keen to fix what isn’t broken so a temporary choice of captain would seem the wisest option.
Getting what you need (most) from a game
Limerick and Tipperary face off Saturday evening in their NHL opening game. Everything is on the table. Nothing is on the table.
The latter first: nothing is on the table because of the trophies these two sides collected in the last two seasons. Tipperary are the All-Ireland holders, and Limerick the side which won the big show the previous year. On that score, a League match in the middle of January amounts to very little set against the memories of big days in Croke Park in August. Both teams know what it’s like to be the last team standing - the effort that goes into the endeavour, the need to pace yourself a little early in the year.
And the part about everything being on the table? These two teams will meet again in the Munster Championship, and nobody would rule out a further encounter later in the year, in either the Munster decider or the All-Ireland series. Because of that, neither side will want to cede any psychological ground to the other: the League can be a tricky proposition in that way because while a side may not gain a huge advantage over an opponent there, the trace elements of defeat or disappointment can persist into the summer.
Factor in another consideration or two: Limerick are looking to put the distractions of wintertime behind them, while Tipperary will be trying to integrate a couple more promising youngsters.
Which impulse is stronger? That depends on what’s needed most.
Cork putting the jigsaw pieces in place
Tony McEntee didn’t bat an eyelid when he proclaimed this week on the Examiner’s GAA podcast that Cork wouldn’t so much saunter as bulldoze their way through Division 3 of the League this spring. They would do so on the basis that Ronan McCarthy’s squad is head and shoulders above their rivals. Indeed, McEntee continued, they were All-Ireland contenders.
Of course, if games were played on paper and not grass, one might be inclined to give the Crossmaglen man’s argument further interrogation. However, McCarthy’s ambitions stretch no further than 6pm on Saturday, when they throw-in for the county’s first-ever third division League encounter against John Maughan’s Offaly.
McCarthy’s first-team selection is notable for many newcomers from the U20 All-Ireland winners, but of greater long-term significance might be the selection of Sean Powter as a defender. The Douglas man was a 2017 young player of the year candidate and before a succession of hamstring mishaps checked his promise, he had indicated that the No 5 position, and not that of a deep-lying half-forward, was his optimum position to influence proceedings.
If he can get a run and some momentum over the next eight weeks, it might lock into place a key part of Cork’s 2020 jigsaw - and one of the best facing-the-ball weapons in the game.
Faces new and old back on the sidelines
The Kerryfication of Leinster begins in earnest this weekend as Jack O’Connor, Micheál Quirke, and Paul Galvin make their full competitive bows as managers of Kildare, Laois, and Wexford respectively. Going back to Mick O’Dwyer’s time with Kildare, the province has regularly been populated with Kingdom managers with the likes of Páidí Ó Sé, Tomás Ó Flatharta, Liam Kearns, John Evans, and John Sugrue taking over counties.
O’Connor, Quirke, and Galvin are among the 11 new appointments in football in 2020, although O’Connor, Seamus McEnaney, David Power, and Rory Gallagher have ridden this train before with other or their own outfits. And O'Connor's League record, at least with Kerry, is quite impressive with three Division 1 titles in seven seasons.
Across hurling’s two Division 1 groups, there are a considerable five new bosses, four of them in Group 1 alone, in the shape of Liam Cahill (Waterford), Kieran Kingston (Cork), Shane O’Neill (Galway), and Shane O’Brien (Westmeath), while Brian Lohan (Clare) is the sole new if familiar face in Group 2. Consider, too, that Darren Gleeson and Michael Fennelly have taken over Antrim and Offaly respectively.
Perhaps inspired by Liam Sheedy’s success in his second reign with Tipperary, Kingston and McEnaney are back in the same saddle.
New rules, new loopholes
So where do we stand with Gaelic football's new rules? Clarity seems to be lacking as the rules trialled last year have been adjusted and potential loopholes identified.
Unlike last year's trial, forwards have to signal when they want to claim an advanced mark, even after the referee has blown his whistle, and they now have three times longer to take it (15 seconds versus five last year), which also applies to marks from kick-outs.
There has been confusion over whether defenders can claim an advanced mark in their defensive half (they can) and whether they can tackle a forward if he chooses to play on (not until they've taken four steps or played the ball).
How referees will judge whether the ball has travelled 20m is also a major bone of contention.
Speaking on the Irish Examiner's Allianz Football League preview podcast, Tony McEntee spoke of one unnamed county's efforts to find a loophole: "Their tactic at the minute is when you catch the ball from a mark to put the arms around you to prevent you raising your hand so you can't take the mark."
As for the sin bin, as well as the potential for time-wasting, in a game about to head into extra-time, players could be incentivised to return to the field before receiving permission, resulting in a red card, as players who have been sent-off can be replaced for extra-time but sin-binned players have to wait until their ten minutes are served.
What can Mayo's forwards learn from master McDonald?
As Mayo prepare to begin a National League campaign as defending Division 1 champions for the first time for 18 years, all eyes are trained on how the second season of James Horan’s second coming plays out. During the off-season, he has lost two members of his management team — Daniel Forde and Martin Barrett — and gained a coach in Ciaran McDonald, Horan’s former teammate and a man who knows a thing or two about forward play.
McDonald’s brief is to get more out of Mayo’s attack on a consistent basis, so it was interesting this week to hear injured forward Jason Doherty talk about the need to "find three or four more points" in order to take down the Dubs for the first time in the Championship since 2012. Fresh-faced young attackers like James Carr, Ryan O’Donoghue, Bryan Walsh, Ciaran Treacy, and Tommy Conroy will be among the apprentices hoping to learn a few tricks of the trade from the master McDonald in the months ahead.
The dynamic between the mercurial Crossmolina man, Horan, and James Burke, who is understood to be directing operations on the training ground this season in his capacity as head coach, will be fascinating to watch.
Defences under the microscope at Walsh Park
Two points would be nice but it’s all about the performance for the new Cork and Waterford managers in Walsh Park on Sunday. Although they were back training earlier than most, nobody is expecting fireworks - how many times in recent years have we seen Cork fly out of the traps in week one only to come a cropper the following week?
The set-up of both defences will be intriguing given it’s those areas that are in need of most attention - Cork because they still haven’t configured what’s best for their rearguard and centre-back has to be nailed down, and Waterford simply due to the amount of bodies they are down in their back-line.
It’s been a testing time for new manager Cahill over the winter when there was a lot of attention devoted to the proven players he lost and chose to lose whereas Cork were able to keep a tight lid on Daniel Kearney’s departure until this week. Whether there's something in that is a matter of judgement but Cahill is strong-willed enough not to let it affect him. Losing Daniel Kearney, possibly the hardest working forward, was dealt with calmly by Kieran Kingston earlier this week. For Waterford, at least, Sunday may be more about who’s not present as opposed to who is.