Saturday 25 November 2017

Even if Dubs are dipping, they are beyond slipping up here

Westmeath have players to trouble holders - but the gap is simply too big

Dublin’s flying wing-back Jack McCaffrey. Pic: Sportsfile
Dublin’s flying wing-back Jack McCaffrey. Pic: Sportsfile

There's a theory doing the rounds that Dublin are not quite the irresistible force they were. Still formidable, still the team to beat ... but beatable nonetheless.

Does that theory have any bearing on events in their Leinster football playground? Or, more immediately, on tomorrow's semi-final with a familiar underdog rival, Westmeath?

We'll get back to that later.

But first, is it true that Jim Gavin's hat-trick chasing champions are slowly coming back to the rest of the field?

The nearest we can come to a definitive answer, right now, is "just possibly" ... but it would be foolish to read too deeply into their recent labours in Portlaoise, where it took them far longer than expected to finish off Carlow's defiant rearguard action.

Westmeath dangermen John Heslin (left) and Kieran Martin. Pic: Sportsfile
Westmeath dangermen John Heslin (left) and Kieran Martin. Pic: Sportsfile

In yesterday's Herald, we posed the question whether Gavin has purposely recalibrated Dublin's training regime with a view to ensuring that a seasoned panel with high mileage on the clock are physically able to peak when it matters most.

There are clear signposts (a January team holiday; a five-week post-league break) that this is the case. All of this may explain why Dublin were off the blitzkrieg pace of old against Carlow. It was just the second time in 13 Leinster outings under Gavin that they failed to raise a green flag - and they only created one goal chance for Kevin McManamon.


Moreover, their patient build-up veered into ponderous more than once and this has been a feature, at times, over the past year.

This is partly because most opponents set up with a blanket defence ... and, ever since the shock-and-awe ambush that was Donegal in 2014, the Dublin boss is loath to leave his own defence over-exposed on the counter.

So what ensues, initially at least, is a game of chess. Dublin are no longer the 'Gavin Globetrotters' but they are still ruthlessly efficient at chiselling out big tallies and double-digit margins.

This can be gleaned from the statistical analysis of their five-year provincial form graph carried elsewhere on these pages. Whereas in 2015, with the rest of Leinster in disarray, they amassed 11 goals and 56 points in three games, last summer's corresponding tally was 4-61. More points but significantly less goals. The victory margins were smaller too; but it's all relative.

Which brings us to Westmeath. Two summers running, in consecutive Leinster finals, they have parked the bus. But this tactic only tends to work for so long because playing with multiple sweepers and bodies back requires a huge physical effort and just as much mental concentration.

Last year, for 35 minutes, they frustrated the life out of Dublin. But once Gavin tinkered with his personnel (switching Ciarán Kilkenny to wing-back to facilitate the introduction of an extra attacker in Paddy Andrews) and his players upped the pace, the scoreboard gap kept growing and Westmeath visibly flagged.

For all the plaintive cries in Westmeath this week, imploring their players to become have-a-go heroes, it's naive to think they should go toe-to-toe, man-on-man, with the Dubs. Longford tried that in 2015. Look what happened. Or rather look away ...


But Tom Cribbin needs to strike the right balance. He needs to ensure that enough meaningful ball is directed towards John Heslin and Kieran Martin; that his marquee duo aren't left horribly isolated and feeding off scraps. Because if that happens, Dublin can go for the kill at a time of their own choosing ... and, yet again, they will have qualified for another Leinster final without a glove being laid on them.

Back to Dublin, and where this preview all started. The suggestion that they are no longer at the peak of their powers can be traced back to last year's All-Ireland saga with Mayo. Even if it was buried for a while in the avalanche of praise that greeted each spring step towards emulating and then surpassing Kerry's all-time unbeaten record, there were signs of it here too in the requirement to rescue losing positions against Tyrone, Donegal and Monaghan.

And then they finally lost, to Kerry. Time will tell if that was an ideally-timed wake-up call, even a pressure-lifting blessing ... or a sign of things to come.

For the moment, they will have too much for Westmeath even if the latter will be quietly confident that they can at least ask some tough questions and end Dublin's run of double-digit Leinster cakewalks.

Tomorrow and for another potential two matches beyond, Dublin must adapt to life without Diarmuid Connolly. They will miss his X-factor and it will be intriguing to see how the rest of Dublin's attack, rookies included, perform in his absence.

But even if the forwards don't cut loose, Dublin can still hurt you from deep in the guise of Jack McCaffrey and James McCarthy.

They simply won't slip up here.

ODDS: Dublin 1/50 Draw 25/1 Westmeath 12/1 VERDICT: Dublin

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