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Saturday 24 August 2019

Chasing moral victory in blur of blue

LEINSTER SFC FINAL Dublin v Meath Tomorrow, Live RTÉ 2 (4pm)

Meath’s Stephen Bray is tackled by Michael Fitzsimons in the 2014 Leinster final
Meath’s Stephen Bray is tackled by Michael Fitzsimons in the 2014 Leinster final

If the evidence before our eyes and the corroborating proof of the record books wasn't so overwhelming, you'd almost suspect that the denizens of Meath GAA were embarked upon the ultimate con trick.

Call it rope-a-dope by Royal decree.

Meath legend-turned-pundit Bernard Flynn captured the pessimistic mood with the following prediction to RTÉ Sport this week: "If we play like we did against Offaly, we'll lose by 35 points. If we play like we did against Carlow, we'll lose by 25 points. If we play like we did for the first 45 minutes against Laois, we'll lose by 20 points."

By logical extension, if they can maintain those marginal improvements in Croke Park tomorrow, they might only lose by 15. Or if they shoot the lights out, they could be celebrating a ten-point moral victory.

Spiky

The narrative ahead of tomorrow's scarcely-awaited showpiece has read like a pre-mortem on the deathly state of Leinster football. There is no suspense, only sorrowful lamentations about a famously spiky rivalry no more.

There is zero debate about who will win; far more chat about the margin. These age-old enemies are now embroiled in a battle to beat the handicap rather that beat each other.

Even the fact that Dublin are poised to become the first county to win nine consecutive provincial senior football titles has garnered minimal praise, because they are seen to be operating in a different galaxy to all the rest in Leinster.

Jim Gavin's trophy-laden troops are in a competition with each other for a jersey rather than a competition with near-equals.

This is not Dublin's fault.

Nor is it the fault of an up-and-coming Meath team that has already nailed two of its prime targets for 2019 - belated league promotion back to the top tier, and a first Leinster final appearance in five years.

But, in a big picture sense, Meath and Kildare have to share some culpability for their inability - throughout the Gavin years - to at least stay on the coat-tails on the pack pursuing Dublin. If they had been more like Mayo, or Donegal, or Tyrone, or Kerry, there was at least the possibility that they would keep Dublin honest.

With the odd fleeting exception (within games rather than for the full 70) they have been miles off the benchmark.

Thus, Leinster finals have become a double-digit procession. And fans, both victims and victorious, have voted with their feet. Why show up for a mismatch in June when you've the Super 8s in July?

The last time Dublin lost in Leinster was in that semi-final, nine years ago. At the time, the concession of five goals to a Meath attack decorated by the mercurial talents of Stephen Bray, Cian Ward, Joe Sheridan and Brian Farrell was hard to comprehend.

In the context of all that has followed, it is beyond surreal.

And yet, as Bray reminded The Herald this week, Dublin would end up in an All-Ireland semi-final the following year.

The retired Meath forward reckoned 2010 was "a turning point" for Dublin. Pat Gilroy first and latterly Gavin were key to this transformation. "I think both managers have got Dublin playing as a real team. There's no egos, there's no individuals," said Bray.

Conversely, the rest of Leinster hasn't been good enough. Just four years after the five-goal rout, Meath lost the 2014 Leinster final by 16 points. It could have been more grisly still: in the 61st minute, his team leading by 20, Dean Rock fisted a point-blank goal chance onto the post.

"The opposition hasn't been good enough against them," admitted Bray. "Meath have fallen back a little bit. We probably competed well with them in 2013, but in 2014 I just remember after that game going 'It's going to take some team to beat them' …

"The teams in Leinster just aren't at that level. Whether it's the preparation that Dublin are doing, or the effort, but they're getting their rewards. They're very dedicated and very disciplined."

Exposure

Meath's dedication under Andy McEntee is not in doubt but, even in victory over Offaly, Carlow and Laois, they have only performed in sporadic bursts. Any fitful repeat and you can write the script here.

The difficulty, though, is in locating that elusive 70-minute consistency when your legs are fried and your brains are scrambled by Dublin's remorseless intensity.

When you're facing a double All-Star forward (Paul Mannion) who tracks back and tackles like a full-time defender, when you're opposing a multi-decorated defender (Jack McCaffrey) who counter-attacks at the speed of light, you get an idea of just how draining this challenge can be.

A majority of McEntee's Meath weren't involved for that last Leinster final (in 2014) or even for their last SFC head-to-head (a routine ten-point Dublin win in 2016). They are about to find out.

The key survival factors for our Royal underdogs?

(1) It's a cliché but they can't afford to sit back and defend en masse. Damage limitation doesn't work against Dublin, who will patiently probe for as long as it takes to work the high-percentage scoring chance for Mannion, Cormac Costello, Con O'Callaghan or Ciarán Kilkenny to take.

(2) Meath can't go all gung-ho either, but it's crucial that they apply some pressure on Stephen Cluxton's kick-outs.

(3) Kildare created three unconverted goal chances against Dublin the last day; Meath must match that and (in echoes of 2010) take them all.

(4) In the near-certain event that Dublin win, this is the crucial part: avoid humiliation, be happy that you've performed to your potential against the ultimate challenge, and leave Croker in a positive mindset.

The last beaten Leinster finalist to win its next qualifier and reach the last eight was Kildare in 2009. Dublin's provincial final victims have suffered not just on the day but in its aftermath. It's high time someone bucked that trend.

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