Meath will bring best out of Dubs
But champions have strength in depth to hold onto title
IT'S five years now since I exited the inter county stage and sometimes it can be hard believe how quick everything evolves.
Retiring from inter-county football is a tough station. It is something that is not talked about too often amongst players but the reality is that it can be one big black hole for the players involved.
Each year, bit by bit, the raw emotion of not being involved changes to the emotion of knowing that you would not be able-bodied enough to be involved. That's when you know the healing process has begun.
However, it is this weekend every year that the old wounds are opened and it is this weekend when I miss pulling on the blue jersey the most - Dublin versus Meath.
A special rivalry and a special day in headquarters. A day that will leave longstanding memories for all involved. Most Dublin fans can remember vividly every clash between these two great footballing counties for the last 30 years. Every ball that was kicked or at times every punch that was thrown is recalled in great detail!
Whatever happens next Sunday will stay within the white lines of Croke Park and one group of supporters will have their bragging rights banked for the next twelve months at least.
Dublin are 1/8 favourites to take home the Delaney Cup for the ninth time in ten years. I doubt a Dublin team has ever gone into a Leinster final at such short odds against Meath.
If Dublin win on Sunday, in years to come many will ask what happened in the one year they failed to win the Leinster title during that period. Yes, our nearest and dearest rivals Meath spoiled any chance of the perfect ten in a row when blindsiding Dublin in the 2010 Leinster Championship with a five-goal blitz. There is a hidden message in that statistic. Do not under-estimate the challenge they will present.
Playing Dublin has always brought the best out of Meath and there is no reason to expect anything less on Sunday. Mick O'Dowd has brought harmony to Meath after a few years of instability and his team are still progressing under his guidance.
Last year Meath were in new territory. O'Dowd was in his first year in charge and they were pitched against a new Dublin team if you want to call it that. Jim Gavin had introduced new young players with a new system of play and Meath were heading into the unknown.
O'Dowd prepared meticulously for Dublin and nullified a lot of their key strengths. He researched and analysed in depth Stephen Cluxton's kick outs. He crowded the midfield and half back area thus creating space for his inside forwards. In fact he had done so much preparation to counteract Dublin that his detailed template could have been possibly shared with some of Dublin's other opponents as the year progressed. Who knows!
Last year, Meath's game plan worked for a long period and restricted Dublin to 1-4 in the opening half. It took Dublin time to break down their system of play - until the third quarter of the game. O'Dowd now has first hand experience of the Dublin style of play, which has largely remained unchanged.
I expect Meath will have learnt from last year's encounter and whilst the key elements of their game plan will remain unchanged they will look to further enhance their tactical approach to this game and also expect Dublin to change their approach.
O'Dowd is still a few players short, in my opinion, and I am struggling to see how his defensive line can cope with the forward options that Jim Gavin has at his disposal.
Gavin has been smart by not showing any consistency in the selection of his front six forwards to date and this leaves O'Dowd playing a guessing game in preparing what is the weakest element of his team. Will Bernard Brogan start, what role will Alan Brogan play? Which of the young guns, Paul Mannion or Cormac Costello, will be in the first fifteen? Will Kevin McManamon and Dean Rock be held back for a third quarter injection of power and pace?
Whilst these options up front potentially give Gavin the upper hand, Dublin need to be ruthless in their approach and preparation to this game. Any complacency will be seized upon by the Royals.
They also cannot afford to let this game become a shootout by leaving their defence exposed to open spaces. If Meath are to win, they need their key players to perform and Dublin must ensure this does not happen.
Stephen Bray and Michael Newman offer a big threat in their inside forward line. Bray is a confidence type player and if he is afforded the opportunity to grow into the game like in last year's decider, he will hurt Dublin.
Dublin may assign Jonny Cooper the task of marking Bray and they must also be disciplined in the tackle. Newman will slot any frees conceded within range of goal.
Meath goalkeeper Paddy O'Rourke is also key to the Meath performance. O'Rourke probably has the biggest punt of a ball off the deck in the country.
He is accurate from long distance frees but more importantly, he has the ability to land his kick out down the throat of the Dublin defence. If Meath are opportunistic on the breaking ball, it will put the likes of Graham Reilly or Andrew Tormey in a dangerous position.
I do think that Dublin will have what it takes to deal with anything Meath throw at them. For me it is the perfect starting point for their progression to the All Ireland series. With Dublin on a collision path with possibly both Monaghan and Donegal in the weeks ahead, this test against Meath will set a good barometer for breaking down defensive game plans.
On paper, man for man, and in strength in depth, Dublin hold all the aces and if they perform to the required level, they win, simple as. Dublin by six or seven points.