By Micil Glennon
Cork and Kerry head up country looking for their first Allianz NFL points - while Dublin, Kildare and Tyrone look to build on their perfect starts.
Saturday 2 March
Dublin v Mayo, Croke Park, 7.00pm
Dublin welcome Mayo to Croke Park on Saturday night sitting on top of Division 1 after two wins out of two.
Jim Gavin will be pleased with how his younger players have backed up the ever-reliable Bernard Brogan, scorer of 13 points so far, with Jack McCaffrey and Kevin O’Brien showing well against Cork and Kerry.
The league leaders will be without Rory O’Carroll (Fitzgibbon hurling) and Michael Darragh Macauley (suspension), however, midfielder Denis Bastick is available again and Diarmuid Connolly makes an earlier than expected return.
Darragh Nelson and Declan O'Mahony also both start.
Ciarán Kilkenny, recently returned from AFL side Hawthorn, has been training with Dublin and is named on the bench.
Mayo were impressive when dismissing Kerry in the opening round (0-15 to 1-06) but the Kingdom’s subsequent display against the Dubs put that result in perspective.
And the following week the 2012 All-Ireland finalists lost a ding-dong battle with Tyrone in McHale Park, a game where they went 31 minutes without a score from play.
Injured Cillian O’Connor felt it was a game they should have won. “We let the win slip against Tyrone. We came back, showed a bit of character in the second half to get ahead and then the penalty went against us. That was disappointing,” he told GAA.ie.
Manager James Horan announced five changes to the side that lost to Tyrone but mid-week team news has turned into a nonsense – maybe there will be five changes, maybe there won’t.
Either way, Alan Dillon suffered a recurrence of a long-term injury in his substitute appearance against the Red Hand and misses out.
Dublin will be looking for a bit of revenge after last season’s All-Ireland semi-final loss and have the momentum behind them.
Sunday 3 March
Down v Cork, Páirc Esler, 2pm
Down will be happy to see visitors from outside of the province after defeats to Tyrone and Donegal in the opening two rounds.
However, their challenge this week comes in the form of Allianz League champions Cork.
Veteran forward Benny Coulter says that Division 1 survival is secondary to getting a system in place for real business in the summer.
He said in the Irish Examiner: “We don’t want to get totally consumed with trying to stay in Division 1 at the expense of maybe not getting a system of playing in place that will stand to us come the championship.”
While Coulter hopes to get some game time on Sunday, Danny Hughes and Ambrose Rogers remain out.
Cork arrive on the back of defeats to Dublin and Kildare.
It wasn’t the easiest of starts, but the last game in Páirc Uí Rinn could have gone either way, with Kildare scoring two late goals to claim the points.
Damien Cahalane’s red card in that game sees him ruled out while Tomás Clancy, Noel O’Leary and Barry O’Driscoll are named to start.
Daniel Goulding and Pa Kelly remain unavailable through injury.
Cork have had a hex over Down, winning the last five games, and should edge this one.
Kildare v Kerry, Newbridge, 2pm
Kildare host Kerry at a sold-out St Conleth’s Park on Sunday on the back of a seven-game winning streak, having gone all the way in the O’Byrne Cup, in addition to NFL wins over Donegal and Cork.
Newcomers Niall Kelly and Daniel Flynn have been most impressive to date, slotting in nicely with Johnny Doyle on hand to help them bed in to the team.
Seanie Johnston has been showing glimpses of his class and some of Kildare’s team scores so far have been up there with the best seen this season.
Midfielder Hugh Lynch makes his first start of the season. He is among four changes to the side that beat the Rebels with Eoin Doyle, Tomás O'Connor and the aforementioned Kelly due to start.
Gary White is no longer on the panel as he prepares for a six-month stint overseas with the army.
Things don’t get any easier for Kerry and manager Éamonn Fitzmaurice must be fearful for his side’s chances.
For any team the manner of losses to Mayo (42 minutes without a score) and Dublin (a total of 0-04) would be worrying but for Kerry it’s barely believable.
Even without Colm Cooper, who was on club duty with Dr Crokes and is now taking an extended break, it makes for stark reading.
The rest of the Crokes contingent, among them Johnny Buckley and captain Eoin Brosnan are due back for Sunday, as is Paul Galvin.
But even those big names are unlikely to be able to make up the difference between the sides come Sunday.
Tyrone v Donegal, Omagh, 2pm.
In a teaser to the 26 May Ulster Championship quarter-final tie, familiar foes Tyrone and Donegal clash in Omagh.
Mickey Harte’s men have a 100% record after two impressive away wins over Down and Mayo.
Seán Cavanagh, who missed most of last season with a shoulder injury, is back on form and shone in the McKenna Cup and in the one-point win over the All-Ireland finalists.
Ahead of the game the former Ireland captain conceded that Tyrone’s place in the football’s hierarchy has changed in recent years.
"It probably is a bit more challenging trying to catch up with another team…because we have to recognise we haven't been in the best five or six teams in Ireland in the last few years,” he said in the Irish Independent.
Three-time All-Ireland winner Owen Mulligan has been training with the squad but was not named in the match-day panel on Thursday.
Michael Murphy and Matthew Donnelly are named to start for the Red Hand.
The All-Ireland champions have had a sluggish start to 2013, bowing out of the McKenna Cup without any resistance and were still raw in the league loss to Kildare in Croke Park.
One player who hasn’t been sluggish is Michael Murphy.
The captain has scored 15 of their 28 points so far but manager Jim McGuinness would surely like to see the rest of his attackers contribute to the scoreboard – what would happen if Murphy got injured?
While it’s early days in terms of team building, Donegal selector Rory Gallagher is expecting a full-blooded encounter between the sides.
“I can't see either team going into the game holding back. People may describe it as shadow boxing, as there is a more important game down the line, but I would imagine both teams will be going hell for leather for it on Sunday,” he told The Irish News.