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Wednesday 7 December 2016

Rock's record proves fringe benefit

Dean did it last year ... now a few more unsung Dubs can catch Jim's January eye

Dublin forward Dean Rock (SPORTSFILE)
Dublin forward Dean Rock (SPORTSFILE)

If you're a Dublin footballer on the senior team fringes, does the Bord na Móna O'Byrne Cup really matter?

We'll give you a two-word answer: Dean Rock.

The truth is that several players who have featured in Sky Blue over the past week, either in Enniscorthy or Russell Park, will be watching the Dubs from afar next summer.

That's the nature of this unforgiving inter-county world, especially in a superpower county like Dublin. You might get a fleeting chance in January or even February, when a host of established names are hors de combat … but this will be your glass ceiling.

Breakthrough

Every so often, though, a player previously on the periphery will make the O'Byrne Cup breakthrough - and never look back. Which brings us to Rock.

In fairness, the Ballymun marksman was not a true fringe player. He was already an All-Ireland medallist, filling a vital impact sub role for Jim Gavin in 2013. But curiously, mostly through a mixture of injury misfortune and club commitments (in 2013), he had never started an Allianz League game. A few cameos here and there; nothing more.

In December 2014, Barney's son addressed this glaring anomaly on his Sky Blue CV.

"I'm looking forward to playing games for Dublin," he said at the time. "To getting in for the O'Byrne Cup and trying to get in for the National League and getting a good run. And playing football really. I love playing football.

"Jim always says if you get in early and you do well, the jersey is yours to keep. And I've never got that opportunity." Last year changed all that. Rock played the O'Byrne Cup opener against Maynooth - and kept on playing. Five consecutive starts in a triumphant campaign yielded 38 points.

Then, a few weeks shy of his 25th birthday, he made his belated full league baptism in Páirc Uí Rinn.

Dublin lost narrowly to Cork, but their freetaker had delivered more than enough (eight points, four from play) to retain his jersey.

By the end of April, Rock had started nine NFL games on the spin, accumulating 1-52, and Dublin were three-in-a-row league champions.

And by the end of September, he had started all seven of Dublin's championship games en route to Sam Maguire, scoring 2-23.

Do the maths: the all-conquering Blues played 21 competitive matches last season and Rock started every one of them. Would that have happened if he hadn't hit the ground running in the O'Byrne Cup? Probably not.

Question

It's true that his starting position was the source of much conjecture at the business end of the All-Ireland race, with a question mark over his contribution from open play. He was replaced at half-time in the Mayo stalemate, after 53 minutes of the replay and again at the All-Ireland final midpoint against Kerry.

But his ever-present record through an entire season remains an eye-catching stat, especially in an era when managers love to experiment and in a county so dripping with forward options.

Rock began 2016 with another big performance last Sunday, overcoming an early penalty miss to kick six points (four from play) as an understrength Dublin battled back to draw with Wexford.

Yet there'll be no ever-present repeat this year - he sat out Wednesday night's romp against IT Carlow.

Already, his manager has looked at 27 players. Cruel as it sounds, it's safe to assume that several of those will disappear without inter-county trace in the next few weeks ... just consider all the established stars currently being rested, or recuperating from injury, or the other fringe players who are college-tied for the O'Byrne Cup, or the best of Ballyboden St Enda's who won't feature until the end of their All-Ireland club campaign.

But, as Rock's example underlines, opportunity may well knock for someone this month. Tomorrow's decisive group clash with DCU would be a good place to start. Dublin must win to leapfrog their college rivals and claim a semi-final place ... with that carrot dangling, we suspect they will.

VERDICT: Dublin

O'BYRNE CUP: DUBLIN v DCU, PARNELL PK, TOMORROW (2pm)

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