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Monday 21 August 2017

After the romp comes the Red Hand acid test

Dubs a team in total control but now it gets interesting

Dublin’s Cian O’Sullivan cuts out an attempt ball to Monaghan’s Owen Duffy
Dublin’s Cian O’Sullivan cuts out an attempt ball to Monaghan’s Owen Duffy

Perhaps the most intriguing part of Saturday's soporific double-bill at Croke Park was watching Tyrone in the first mismatch - and wondering.

Wondering how Dublin might cope with such a finely tuned, aggressive yet disciplined blanket defensive set-up, coupled with a counter-attacking game-plan that has markedly improved since last season.

All of this was before they had even faced Monaghan. Presumptuous? Not, as it transpired, in the slightest.

Dublin were in total cruise control from the moment a mesmeric Paul Mannion cut in from the Cusack Stand wing, away from Ryan Wylie's despairing challenge, to land a left-footed beauty. The clock read 28 seconds.

Whereas Monaghan, from pretty soon afterwards, were utterly bereft ... of true belief, of the required personnel, or even of the tactical 'smarts' to make Dublin pause and wonder if a Plan B was required.

So it was game over, be it at half-time (when Dublin led 0-11 to 0-3) or after 40 minutes (when Dean Rock palmed the only goal) ... or even, if you prefer, after 28 seconds.

And that brings us back to our opening paragraph. For all the complete control, tactical mastery and scoreboard domination enjoyed by both Tyrone and Dublin, Saturday's double-header was so scarily lopsided as to test the dictionary definition of a damp squib.

So much so that it produced the weird paradox of the GAA announcing a "full house" attendance against the backdrop of Croke Park stands being deserted in their droves by the fleeing masses of Armagh, Tyrone - and Monaghan.

This trend of lopsided quarter-finals has been happening for years and begs the inevitable awkward question about what next year's Super 8s will inflict upon our boredom thresholds, given the reality. And it's this: we have a Fab 4 (at best) or maybe a Terrific 3 (if Mayo's gradual demise as genuine contenders is to prove terminal).

But that head-shaking debate is for another day. Saturday was all about trying to decipher Dublin's state of health as they close in on that tantalising prize of three-in-a-row ... and whether they look ready to deal with Tyrone on August 27.

It's a familiar challenge for Jim Gavin and his players who, by now, have completed a Masters in how to unravel a massed defence such as Monaghan's (albeit theirs lacked any sustained intensity in the tackle).

Punching

But they'll need a Doctorate to crack the Tyrone defensive web. The manner in which Dublin patiently spread the point of attack against Monaghan - using the full width of Croker to prod and probe before punching through the gaps that eventually resulted - suggested that they're ready.

But we can't be sure until we see Messrs Mannion, Rock et al up close and personal with Mickey Harte's Red Hand army.

Gavin himself knows what's coming. "The game the next day won't be a traditional 15 on 15, that's for sure," he noted.

"So we need to be controlled in those phases - and I thought we did that when it was required in the first half. No doubt that will be required from us in three weeks also."

The flip side is that this summer's Tyrone model is scoring more freely: they've averaged almost 1-21 en route to the last-four.

Then again, they haven't faced a defence as well drilled or suffocating in the tackle as Dublin's: even if you include their one loose performance against Kildare, the All-Ireland holders have coughed up just 1-46 in their four summer dates to date.

Coincidence or not, the exact same tally leaked by Tyrone.

On Saturday, Gavin was asked what type of semi-final he expects - akin to their league stalemate in Croker (when Dublin came with a late surge to draw 0-10 to 1-7) or something more high-scoring?

"High-scoring?" he pondered. "Again, it probably depends on the conditions on the day, but it's going to be a close game.

"My recollection of the game here in February, that's six months ago when we played them ... I thought they were very fit for February. I thought they were covering the ground really, really well. It was very, very impressive. We just hung in and showed great resilience to eke something out.

"Over the last number of seasons Dublin-Tyrone games have been nip and tuck and I don't expect anything different."

Overall, while Gavin always stresses the educational benefits of every game, it's debatable how much he'll have learned from this latest double-digit victory.

He already knew that Rock was a deadball machine but his striking here - from any distance and either wing - was as good as ever.

Rock was facilitated by Monaghan's first half fouling tendencies; Malachy O'Rourke felt Dublin won a number of "easy enough frees" but, in truth, he was far more frustrated by their own performance.

Likewise, Stephen Cluxton's importance to the project is no mystery to anyone, least of all his manager. Yet, on the day he broke the all-time SFC appearance record, the Dublin skipper offered a timely reminder of the above, crowning his 89th 'cap' with two fine saves to deny Jack McCarron and Owen Duffy.

Rampaging

Similarly, we knew before Saturday that James McCarthy has all the tools to flourish at midfield, not just wing-back ... but the first half dominance enjoyed by the rampaging McCarthy and the wonderfully poised Brian Fenton (back close to his best) was still encouraging. The Hughes brothers, usually so dynamic, were obliterated.

Gavin has long since known that he doesn't have to rely on one or even two marquee forwards - the baton keeps changing hands.

So whereas Con O'Callaghan dipped from his Leinster final heights and Bernard Brogan was left counting the 1-2 that got away rather than the 0-5 he plundered against Kildare, it didn't matter.

Why? Because Rock was nailing everything; because Paddy Andrews was doing his bit (with 0-3 and a goal assist); and because Mannion was excelling as link man, free-winner and executioner (his three superb points only slightly tarnished by two second half wides with the game long over).

All this, and Gavin now knows that Paul Flynn and Michael Darragh Macauley are just waiting for their semi-final chance; that Eoghan O'Gara looks in the mood to offer that bulldozing Plan B ... and that Diarmuid Connolly (remember him?) is suddenly an available gilt-edged option again.

"There's definitely a sense within the management team that we're building momentum and the players are leading that charge. It's the right time of the season to be doing it," Gavin reflected.

"Balance that by saying that second half performance won't be good enough the next day. But I won't need to tell the players that."

August 27? Circle the date ...

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