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Tuesday 25 July 2017

All bets are off until the Lilies face this Sky Blue juggernaut

Roche's Point

Paul Mannion (left) celebrates with Eoghan O’Gara after O’Gara scored Dublin’s second goal on Sunday. Photo: Sportsfile
Paul Mannion (left) celebrates with Eoghan O’Gara after O’Gara scored Dublin’s second goal on Sunday. Photo: Sportsfile

A week ago, it was tempting to make a case that the long-moribund Leinster SFC was alive and kicking. Or even, as this column's headline suggested with a forensic flourish, that there were signs of a "Leinster football pulse".

We made this bold claim on the basis of Kildare's dismissal of Meath on a sun-baked Saturday evening in Tullamore. We could now look forward to the prospect of a - shock, horror - competitive Leinster final on July 16.

Hmmm. Perhaps we were just a smidgen premature.

Clearly, this is not meant as a post-hoc denigration of the Lilywhites' recent displays. Against both Laois and Meath they have, indeed, looked impressively fit, strong, athletic, organised, cohesive and even - such an un-Kildare thing to be! - free-scoring.

But then we saw Dublin on Sunday. And now we appreciate that all definitive judgements about Kildare's current status simply must be delayed until mid-July.

Why? Because for all the chaotic disarray of Westmeath's fast-disappearing challenge, the All-Ireland champions were that good.

True, to see Dublin so ruthless, so utterly rampant in their Leinster fiefdom was nothing unusual. At their best, this is what they do.

But we haven't seen this type of performance, for such a sustained period, for quite a while. It has helped to banish (for several weeks at least) any nod-wink suggestion that they might be growing old or weary or smugly satisfied.

This record-shredding annihilation ticked all the boxes you want to tick when measuring a team of champions in terms of freshness, sharpness, hunger to keep on going. The one caveat is they didn't have to show any of the 'madness' that winners often require on the biggest days; hardly their fault.

Back in the sepia-tinted day that was 1960, a previous Sky Blue predator amassed 10-13 against Longford. Yet Sunday's 4-29 - while two points less in total - surely qualifies as a more prolific benchmark.

A perusal of their strike-rate confirms as much. There was only one lengthy spell without a Dublin score, the 12 barren minutes that followed Eoghan O'Gara's thunderbolt goal. Their next 'worst' period was the five minutes that followed Dean Rock's opening goal. Otherwise the scoreboard kept moving ever upward at a metronomic rate.

You had 11 different scorers - seven starters and four off the bench who shared 2-5. Their tally from play reached a jaw-dropping 4-23. They had just six wides - one of those a fumble, not even a shot.

Yes, they could have added a few more goals, between one goalkeeping save and two defensive blocks and Ciarán Kilkenny's slashed wide and Paul Mannion's eighth point, blazed over instead of under. But that's being picky.

Leaving aside the scorefest, you could only admire their method, alertness and appetite when devouring Westmeath's first half kickouts.

MÉ FÉINISM

Not to mention the fluidity of their movement and selfless passing to a better-placed colleague: there was very little Mé Féinism on show.

And here's the thing: for certain reasons that may have escaped your attention (if you're from Mars) there was no Diarmuid Connolly on the pitch ... but nor would you find Philly McMahon or Michael Darragh Macauley, both injured, or Paul Flynn, who remained on the bench even as Bernard Brogan and Kevin McManamon vacated it during the second half.

This team is evolving before our eyes. Eric Lowndes and Con O'Callaghan - two of the younger, less established breed - both caught the eye in the first half. Niall Scully may not have scored but he kept beavering away for an otherwise productive 47 minutes.

None of the great teams of recent vintage stayed as they were. To keep on winning, managers had to keep on tinkering. Brian Cody's Kilkenny, in their noughties pomp, are the most oft-quoted example ... but it was likewise with the Kerry crew that won four All-Irelands in six seasons that decade, with seven players who didn't start in 2004 featuring among Jack O'Connor's first 15 in 2009.

So this is the challenge for Kildare. They have lost to a Jim Gavin-managed Dublin by 16 points (in 2013) and 19 points (two summers ago).

The 2017 model might appear far better in most facets, more prepared both physically and mentally for what comes next ... but until they stand up to the juggernaut, all bets are off.

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