Royals dig in for win
Meath beat Model men to final shot
THERE were moments during yesterday's opener in Croke Park when it seemed as though we had somehow been transported back into the mid 90s.
Big wide open spaces, long kick-outs, midfield as the premier battleground and man-to-man marking all over the place. Pat Spillane's dream, basically.
It was as though the respective teams had pressed the 'reset' button on Gaelic football.
And, in the most important throwback to the pre-blanket era, Meath sealed a spot in a second successive Leinster final and set up another verse of the Eastern Province's classic rivalry against Dublin by beating Wexford by 0-18 to 0-13.
"It took us a while actually, a bit of nervousness in some of our players or something," reflected their manager, Mick O'Dowd afterwards, in his typically mild-mannered way. "In the first half we knew we definitely weren't in the place we needed to be to win the game."
Every spectator in Croke Park probably wasn't in the place they expected to be in that first half, figuratively speaking at least, with both Meath and Wexford seemingly settling secretly beforehand on a pact of playing six backs, six forwards, two in midfield and sure, let the best men win.
Pretty? Yes. Probably even a little quaint, bordering on the naive, but both obviously backed themselves to outscore the other.
Early on, Wexford appeared to be better primed.
They did much of the early running but again, in a hark back to yore, that was primarily because of the supremacy of Daithi Waters in midfield, the dominant midfielder off both Anthony Masterson's kick-outs and Paddy O'Rourke's (every single one of which was kicked long, high and as far over the horizon as possible in the hope of landing in a Meath pair of hands).
And with both Meath wing-backs following their men into the Wexford half, the Slaneysiders bombed forward into the sparsely populated prairies and took handy scores in front of the posts.
Brian Malone, for instance, scored two points after long runs but on neither occasion actually had to go past too many Meath jerseys.
Ciaran Lyng, meanwhile, was standing at centre-forward pointing to whichever wing he wanted the ball laid, both of which consisted primarily of 40 yards of open space.
"We have to adapt," admitted Seamus Kenny – starting his first match for Meath in over a year after recovering from a cruciate ligament injury.
"Wexford weren't overly defensive and we kind of went 15 on 15 and whatever challenge arises the next day we'll have to adapt and we'll work on that for the next few weeks.
"I think as a team and a panel we can adapt." Then, when Conor Gillespie started winning kick-outs, Meath came pouring back, turning a four-point deficit into an 0-8 to 0-7 lead, thanks to the hard running of Graham Reilly, the ball-winning of Stephen Bray and the free-taking of Michael Newman.
"I was a little bit disappointed at half-time," said Wexford boss, Aidan O'Brien, "because I thought that for most of the half we were in a very strong position.
"Just towards the end of it we lost our way a little bit, lost a few phases of possession."
And that's precisely what carried Meath over the line. That, and apparently a superior level of match fitness.
For Wexford flagged badly in the second half, despite scoring the first two scores after the break.
Meath kicked on, scoring five points in a row, eight of the next 11 and opened up a three-point lead going into the final 10 minutes when they not so much flooded their own defence, but certainly safeguarded against Wexford goals.
"I'd be very happy with our fitness," praised Kenny.
"We have worked hard since the Monaghan game (in the Division 3 League final) when we had the guts of eight weeks and we put in a big effort and some lads were only getting going at the end there.
"We have a strong bench too and some fresh legs.
"The next two weeks will be good with lads looking for places," he concluded, "because nothing is certain after that performance."