herald

Friday 15 December 2017

Blues face first test of summer

Mickey newman
Mickey newman

DUBLIN trailed Laois by two points at half-time (shock horror) and 'only' led unheralded Wexford by four at the midpoint, but don't read too deeply into either ... their mettle has yet to be tested this summer.

That could well change tomorrow afternoon in Croke Park. There are historical reasons for that statement - Meath were put on this planet to ruffle up the Dubs. And more recent pointers, too, namely the growing signs that Mick O'Dowd is rebuilding a Meath team that will, one day, be capable of challenging once more for All-Ireland honours.

ROBBING

We don't think that day has arrived just yet, even more so because of the long-term injuries that have weakened O'Dowd's hand, robbing him of up to four potential championship starters.

But in a once-off context, are they capable of toppling the Dubs?

Well, the answer to that conundrum won't simply be found in Páirc Tailteann. It depends even more on Dublin: if the reigning league and All-Ireland champions are in the zone, then it's hard to conceive a scenario wherein Meath stick with Jim Gavin's multi-decorated starters, and then his cavalry of prolific replacements, for the full 70-plus minutes.

It will take a notable Dublin dip, be it induced by complacency (unlikely) or mental fatigue or the sudden malaise that frequently assails All-Ireland holders when least expected.

It has happened too often in the recent past - Kerry against Down in 2010, Cork against Mayo in 2011, Dublin against Mayo in 2012, Donegal against Monaghan and Mayo in 2013 - for the concept to be totally dismissed this summer.

Even when the current standard-bearers are priced at a hard-to-fathom 1/7 in a two-horse race with the old incorrigible enemy.

Still, there are many sound reasons why Dublin are such short-odds favourites. Unlike most previous champions, they have carried the same momentum through the ensuing spring campaign and went on to win the league (only one other recent All-Ireland holder, Cork in 2011, managed that feat). Moreover, the manner of that achievement, once it came to the league knockout stages, was scarily emphatic.

Unlike another recent champion, Donegal, who imploded in the face of mounting injuries and fatigue last summer, Jim Gavin's bench is dripping with A-grade options, especially in attack.

Here's another massive plus: in their last four competitive outings they have accumulated 2-20 (against Cork), 3-19 (Derry in the league final), 2-21 (Laois) and 2-25 (Wexford). The average? Exactly 2-22. Outrageous.

However, if you delve deeper into those scorelines, you will unearth not alone one of Dublin's greatest strengths but also a potential Achilles heel.

Their recent propensity for slow starts, bereft of their trademark dynamism, has been evident in three of these four matches - the league semi-final against Cork and their first two Leinster outings. And yet they are blessed with such speed, athleticism, staying power and (of course) gilt-edged subs that they invariably pile on the scores and the agony just as opponents are starting to wilt.

Just consider how the scoreboard read after 45 minutes in each of the above four matches - and how it had altered by full-time.

Against Cork, they trailed 1-8 to 2-12 ten minutes after half-time and 'won' the last 25 minutes by 1-12 to 0-1. Derry is the only game that skews the trend, if only because the Oak Leafers were already a beaten docket (1-15 to 1-5) after 45 minutes; Dublin outscored them 2-4 to 0-5 from there to the finish.

TRANSFORMATION

Against Laois, Dublin were just one up (0-12 to 0-11) after 45 minutes and won the remainder by 2-9 to 0-5. The transformation against Wexford was equally pronounced: from a position where they already led 0-14 to 0-8, Dublin blitzed their opponents by 2-11 to 1-4 in those concluding 25 minutes.

This ability to score so heavily in the home straight is largely attributable to a bench which tallied 0-10 against Cork, 0-9 against Laois and 1-9 against Wexford, three weeks ago, when Cormac Costello's stunning 1-5 reinforced his claims to a greater role. However, former Meath skipper Anthony Moyles posed an intriguing question when speaking to The Herald this week ... pointing out that Gavin's bench is "forward-loaded", he raised the spectre of what might happen if the Dublin manager was suddenly forced to change a couple of backs who were "getting a roasting".

Meath, on their day, have forwards with the capacity to do just that - primarily the in-form Stephen Bray and the fit-again Mickey Newman, two players who caused Dublin's full-back line numerous headaches during last year's Leinster final.

That game also showcased the tactical acumen of O'Dowd and his managerial brains trust, reflected in the ability of Meath's middle-eight to exert huge early pressure on one of Dublin's greatest strengths, Stephen Cluxton's kickout. Cue a half-time lead of 0-9 to 1-4. Tomorrow they'll need something similar, and to do so they must nullify the usually profound influence of Michael Darragh Macauley and Paul Flynn especially.

Ultimately, last summer, Meath couldn't sustain that herculean effort as Dublin's ability to come strong in those last 25 minutes (outscoring the Royals by 1-6 to 0-2 to win by seven) manifested itself. Our suspicion here is that a similar tale will unfold tomorrow.

BOYLESPORTS ODDS: Dublin 1-7, Draw 15/1, Meath 5/1

VERDICT: Dublin

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