Thursday 18 January 2018

Blues cruise into NFL history

Rebel resistance cracks from the throw-in as McCaffrey & Co ease to league hat-trick

Dublin's Jack McCaffrey celebrates following his side's victory
Dublin's Jack McCaffrey celebrates following his side's victory

RARELY has a piece of football history left you feeling so positively underwhelmed. None of this is Dublin's fault, mind you: it's just that the public expected some more Rebel resistance before Jim Gavin's voracious band of trophy-hunters departed Croke Park with another Allianz League title.

The holders won at their leisure, every bit as imperiously as the 1-21 to 2-7 scoreline suggests, to complete the capital's first ever Division One hat-trick.

In doing so, they emulated what Cork achieved in 2012 ... now Dublin must hope they don't suffer the same summer fate that befell Conor Counihan's men, who had to be satisfied with just one All-Ireland (in year one) to accompany their league three-in-a-row.

On yesterday's emphatic evidence, Dublin are eminently well equipped to try and reclaim Sam Maguire. And yet, in all truth, we learned little more here about their capacity to do so if/when some heavyweight rival drags them into an uncomfortable place.

Hard questions, surely, will be asked at some stage this summer. Yesterday, the hardest questions came from the media afterwards - and even those were of the softly, softly variety.

For whatever reason - stage fright, tactical malfunction or, perhaps the harshest reason of all, they just aren't good enough - Cork failed to turn up in any coherent way.

Previous league play-off encounters between these counties have tended to throw up unfathomable collapses - such as Dublin surrendering an eight-point lead in the 2011 final or Cork suffering a 17-point turnaround to lose last year's semi-final by seven.

This was different: here there was no turnaround and it was less a collapse, more an all-encompassing malaise.

Dublin were already four up and cruising inside seven minutes, the only minor tremor coming when Brian Hurley threatened a fourth minute goal with an overhead flick.

They were five clear before Cork opened their account via a 14th minute Colm O'Neill free. They were seven up at the break - 1-9 to 0-5 - and had stretched 13 ahead before Cork registered their first score from play, a drilled daisy-cutter goal from Mark Collins in the 48th minute. It would take another three minutes before O'Neill landed Cork's only - that's not a misprint - point from play.

The gap was back out to 14 before substitute Daniel Goulding claimed a looping Tomás Clancy handpass and saw his shot dribble past Stephen Cluxton. Conceding that 69th minute goal may gnaw away at the perfectionist inside Gavin; but even this finish, bereft of conviction, was symptomatic of Cork's performance.

READ MORE: Dubs sights set on silverware

That shouldn't entirely detract from the consistent excellence of Dublin's display. For a brief window during the second quarter they were dragged down to Cork's errant level, coughing up three converted frees on the bounce while hitting a few wides and turning over possession a couple of times ... otherwise they purred along in a much higher gear.

Diarmuid Connolly's 35th minute penalty - planted with venomous precision after Michael Shields was adjudged to have dragged down Tomás Brady - probably sounded the death knell for Cork's never-too-convincing comeback. Dublin's six-point salvo on the restart buried it beyond redemption.

Amid the landslide, one of the more intriguing tactical elements was Gavin's decision to employ a high court press on most of Cork's first half kickouts. Doing so against a team set up to defend in numbers and hit you on the counter was contrary to the Dublin norm this spring, but while the results were statistically mixed (Cork won 13 of their 18 restarts in that half) it still resulted in Rebels being pressurised around midfield or even in their own half. Cue a raft of turnovers.

This was very much a collective Dublin effort, with Jack McCaffrey marginally deserving his TG4 crystal for a sequence of typically dynamic forward thrusts, one resulting in a howitzer against the upright before he pointed at the second attempt.

Jonny Cooper (who snuffed out Hurley), Cian O'Sullivan (linking play intelligently from centre-back), Ciarán Kilkenny (his most compelling post-cruciate contribution) and Connolly (with some sublime long-range passes) all had their individual moments.

Collectively, they have now claimed six out of seven major trophies on Gavin's watch. Number seven, another Leinster, looks the easy part ... eight is the only one that matters.

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