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Tuesday 27 September 2016

Men in blue rout boys in green

Leinster six-in-a-row surely beckons for Dublin as Gavin's scoring machine turn the screw on Meath while playing in third gear

Dublin’s James McCarthy holds off the attentions of Meath’s Cillian O’Sullivan. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Dublin’s James McCarthy holds off the attentions of Meath’s Cillian O’Sullivan. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Kevin McManamon of Dublin looks to get past Meath’s Darragh Smyth. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Another double-digit victory for the Dubs has become so much par for the course that, at this stage, you don't know whether to exult in their excellence or lament what has happened to the rest of Leinster.

So it was at Croke Park yesterday evening, as Jim Gavin's All-Ireland champions eased their way to a ten-point success - 0-21 to 0-11 - that told you little you didn't already know about their back-to-back credentials.

That's because, when push came to shove in the second half, Meath brought nothing to the table.

And, from a neutral perspective, that was the most deflating element of this latest Sky Blue cruise to another Leinster final.

There they will meet Westmeath on July 17, in a repeat of last year's provincial decider. Then, Tom Cribbin's rank outsiders became latter-day converts to blanket defence in a dubiously successful attempt at damage limitation - aka a 13-point defeat.

The only reason they might get closer in three weeks' time, you suspect, is if Dublin do what they did for much of last night's second half - take the foot off the pedal, safe in the knowledge that Meath were a busted flush.

The kings of Leinster rarely threatened a goal here - partly because Meath were set up to prevent a glut of green flags but also because Dublin were content to take their points.

In that respect, no one was more metronomic than Dean Rock, who followed up his 1-10 scoring blitz against Laois three weeks ago with another double-digit haul - this time ten points, including nine dead-eyed frees.

There were other positives in attack for Dublin, with Diarmuid Connolly landing a brace in each half, including two outrageous scores during the second quarter at a time when Meath were gamely keeping within touch of the champions.

Bernard Brogan also looked far more alive than he did at Nowlan Park, and was rewarded with three points from play before departing at the three-quarter mark, victory safely in the bag.

And then you had Paul Flynn who, in a reversal of his 11th hour, injury-enforced exit the last day, was parachuted back onto the starting team in place of Paul Mannion.

During a first half when Dublin, in truth, weren't fully on their game, Flynn was their top performer, hoovering up ball around the middle-third and landing two eye-catching points.

His second score, in first half injury-time, edged the 1/50 favourites into a three-point lead, 0-11 to 0-8.

At that stage, Meath optimists were still allowed to dream - they could argue that a game-plan predicated on containment was working, up to a point. They were happy to concede short kickouts to Stephen Cluxton and then hope that a mass of green jerseys inside their own half would stifle Dublin's renowned scoring threat, with Pádraic Harnan operating as their sweeper for the most part.

So far, so vaguely positive for the Royals.

But the second half, from the losers' perspective, was depressing. They weren't helped by three Mickey Newman misses in the first 10 minutes after the restart: his first effort from play fell short as he slipped in the process of shooting, then he followed with a poor wide from play and a misdirected 40m free, the type he had been nailing before the break.

No mistake

With Rock making no mistake, from play and from a free, at the other end, that enabled the Dubs to stretch five clear for the first time.

And even though Newman atoned for those earlier misses with his only point from play, that was as close as they got over the last half-hour, including five stoppage time minutes.

Dublin kept chipping away with points - three in a row, interrupted by Graham Reilly's third point, then another five on the spin before Meath sub Ronan Jones landed a consolation point, deep in garbage time.

The Blues were content to play keep-ball, and we even had a late rendition of "Olé, Olé" from Hill 16 as the game descended into a depressing anti-climax.

Is this what the Dublin/Meath rivalry has been reduced to? True, the margin was an improvement on the 16-point demolition inflicted by Dublin in the 2014 Leinster final .- but it's hard to make an argument that this callow Meath team is any closer to bridging a gap that has become a chasm during the Gavin era.

There were a few individual examples of Royal resistance - Harnan was solid in the sweeper role; skipper Donal Keogan had a couple of minor successes in his stand-out first-half duel with Brogan; Reilly's ability to take a ball at pace and bisect the uprights was rewarded with his 0-3, making him Meath's top scorer from play.

But as the gap grew during the third quarter, that familiar Meath second-half malaise came to the fore. The error count grew, reflected in the faltering displays of Éamon Wallace and Cillian O'Sullivan, who had both caused their share of first-half problems for the Dublin defence.

Thus, it was no surprise when Wallace was called ashore after 54 minutes ... whereas their tale of second-half woe was summed up by O'Sullivan's inexplicable wide from a 13m free in the 58th minute.

To their credit - and unlike Laois who had coughed up two goals before their quarter-final (mis)match had even settled - at least Meath took on the Dublin 'monster' with a plan, retreating bodies back and then seeking to punish Dublin on the counter.

They met with mixed success in the first half, most notably early on.

Initially they were facilitated by an uncharacteristically scattergun Dublin, who had already tallied five wides in the first 10 minutes as the Royals edged 0-3 to 0-1 ahead.

Crucially, though, it could and should have been even more.

Weakness

After four minutes, we saw a glimpse of that potential Dublin full-back weakness in the absence of Rory O'Carroll, as Dalton McDonagh fielded a dangerous delivery and found himself through on goal.

Goalkeeper Cluxton initially did enough to hold up McDonagh and, when he eventually got his point-blank shot away, David Byrne had retreated into the right position to block his shot on the line.

In truth, though, McDonagh should have scored. Moreover, it would have been interesting to see how their rivals would have coped with this early jolt ... although our suspicion is that Dublin would have coped with the setback, such is the thick skin of self-belief they have acquired during the last half-decade of trophy-laden success.

As it was, Dublin had edged ahead by the 15th minute, through Brian Fenton, and led all the way once Rock tapped over a free, four minutes later.

From there on, Meath never looked like stopping them. And nor do Westmeath.

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