Crunch game as NFL gets started

NATIONAL Football League champions Cork visit the Morgan Athletic Grounds on Sunday for their opening league game of the season.

With the game being televised live on Tg4 it would be difficult to evaluate the expected attendance.

But with the Leesiders, like their Munster counterparts not known to travel in big numbers, a crowd of around 5000 could brave the wind chill factor forecast for the day.

Conor Counahan’s Cork side are unbeaten so far this year. They won all their games in the McGrath Cup competition including a facile victory over Tipperary last Sunday in Clonmen, played in what has been reported as poor conditions.

The Athletic Grounds however will be in pristine condition on Sunday.

It hosted last Saturday’s McKenna Cup decider between Derry and Tyrone and if Sunday’s encounter matches the fervour shown by the two Ulster rivals, supporters will be in for a treat.

Both Armagh and Cork will line out sides far removed from what could be seen as championship units.

But the visitors will have one of the best goalkeepers in the business, Ken O’Hallaran, between the posts while the towering Pearse O’Neill is expected to play around the middle.

And household names from the Rebels All-Ireland winning team from 2010 like Paul Kerigan, Michael Shields, Fintan Gould, Paudie Kissane,and Eoin Cadogan are all possible starters.

Armagh boss Paddy O’Rourke and his assistant Paul Grimley have been toying with a number of potential line outs in both the McKenna Cup and in training games.

Midfield will be the most interesting sector. With Kieran Toner currently in Australia the management might use the pace of Pearse Ogs Anton Duffy to supplement the aerial abilities of either James Lavery or Charlie Vernon.

Or they could start big Mal Mackin at half forward with the St Pat’s man also helping out around the middle.

Armagh’s defensive unit looks particularly strong and possessess a lot of natural ball carriers who can attack on a regular basis.

Moriarty, Duffy, Mallon, Donaghy and Kieran McKeever will no doubt have been re-introduced to Paul Grimley’s tackling grids which were previlant during the glory days.

With reports suggesting that injury will keep Michael O’Rourke out of the side for a sustained period and Steven McDonnell not expected back until the late spring, places are up for grabs in the forward line.

Malachy Mackin, a player who was seen in the past as being best in a utility role, had a successful 2011 campaign and should be rewarded with a starting place against Cork on Sunday.

Stephan Campbell, who was rested against Monaghan last time out, should be given one of the full forward positions.

Campbell missed the end of the 2011 club season through suspension and a possible all county under 21 championship medal.

Stephan would be seen as a different type of player to his older brother John whose deceptive ball carrying skills set him apart from most club players. He is deadly from set pieces and very effective in the air.

Eugene McVerry is another player who could start against the Leesiders. McVerry was a part of the Armagh minor side which won the All-Ireland back in 2009.

Should Armagh decide to hand Tir na nOg player Paul Carville his National League debut he could be given the number 11 jersey.

And it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Culloville’s Colm Watters also lining out in the half forward line.

Carville is a fantastic playmaker and in the absence of Aaron Kernan could be given the long range free taking duties from the right hand side.

With the main aim of the county management focusing on gelling a side together for the championship encounter against Tyrone in June several players could be given game time during the National League.

This Sunday’s tie with Cork is as hard as it gets.

Armagh then travel to Kerry and with a visit to Croke Park also to look forward to victories in the league will be at a premium.

Tyrone’s performance last Saturday night at the Athletic Grounds put in perspective the challenge facing Paddy O’Rourke’s side in Ulster this season.

It will take a huge effort from the Orchard County to secure both points on Sunday but a win certainly couldn’t be ruled out.