Wednesday 11 December 2019

It's Rebel hell at death as Dubs lay down a marker

For all Cork's vim and valour, 13-point gap shows Jim's juggernaut is still remorseless

Unstopabble: Jack McCaffrey on the charge against Cork during the All-Ireland SFC quarter-final Phas 1 match at Croke Park
Unstopabble: Jack McCaffrey on the charge against Cork during the All-Ireland SFC quarter-final Phas 1 match at Croke Park

Four summers ago, when this epic championship odyssey began, Dublin beat up Kerry in every conceivable way bar one. On the scoreboard: that rain-sodden 2015 All-Ireland final, won by 0-12 to 0-9, was dubbed by many as a "three-point hammering".

Not that Jim Gavin & Co cared a whit about the weirdly flimsy margin: Sam was heading back to the capital.

Fast-forward to Saturday night in the same Croke Park theatre of Dublin dreams. This time in weather far more benign, scores fell in torrents: 6-35 in total, 5-28 of that from open play.

And when the final audit was completed, it would show that Dublin had won by 13 points. Thirteen points!

Yet here's the funny thing: you could argue that Cork pushed Dublin far more than Kerry did back in 2015.

They had the ambition and accuracy, the wit and even the audacity, to nail the first four points of this 'Super 8s' opener inside six bewildering minutes.

Even after the inevitable Dublin riposte - ignited by a poacher's goal from the inimitable blur of movement that is Jack McCaffrey - Cork showed enough physical and psychological resolve to stay in the game for an hour.


Yet for all their initial vim and subsequent valour, it couldn't last. And for all their improvement in the second summer of Ronan McCarthy's reign, there was an inevitability that Dublin would pull away in the home straight.

This is what they do: they wear you down, in the legs and in your head.

Even knowing this already, Dublin's ruthlessness down the home straight will have sent a chill through the small coterie of pretenders who believe that they might have the personnel and the game-plan to scupper the Drive for Five.

After Mattie Taylor and Brian Hurley clipped back-to-back points to keep Cork's dream on life support - reducing the gap to a goal after 56 minutes - Dublin decided it was time to stop the pretence and put business to bed.

Starting with Dean Rock's 59th minute free, they outscored the Leesiders by 3-4 to 0-3. Those three goals - all different, yet all finished with the same emphatic aplomb - were scored by Niall Scully, Ciarán Kilkenny and Brian Fenton in less than five minutes.

As Cork physically flagged and their focus got frazzled (epitomised by Mark White's attempted short kickout, pounced on by Paddy Small in the prelude to Kilkenny's goal), Dublin went for the jugular. It read like a statement of intent: a reminder that it's not just in Leinster that they're a league apart.

This victory, coupled with Tyrone's earlier success in Dr Hyde Park, has fuelled the understandable belief that Group 2 is already a done deal.

Don't fool yourself for a second that Roscommon might do the unthinkable in Croke Park this Saturday; all of which means that Dublin will be All-Ireland semi-final bound even before they head for their Super 8s finale in Omagh.

Perhaps the one imponderable is Tyrone's progress to the last-four. The recent form graph says they should. But? If Cork can replicate the many positives of this performance, and reduce some of the naivete that McCarthy alluded to afterwards, then it could get very interesting in HQ this weekend.

As for Dublin, their five-in-a-row credentials look even stronger than was the case before Saturday's throw-in.

First among many positives was the form graph of the early-to-mid-twenties generation who have taken ownership of this quest for immortality. And top of that queue is McCaffrey. It's not just that he terrorises defenders in his auxiliary attacker role, reflected in that 11th minute goal; it's the consistency and intelligence of his contributions.


Consider the free pinged in front of Con O'Callaghan, initiating the move for Michael Darragh Macauley's 'slam dunk' goal in first half injury-time; the run and well-timed offload to O'Callaghan for Scully's goal; the diagonal pass to locate Fenton, galloping through the middle for his net-burster.

But this was no one-man show. O'Callaghan was a marauding, unmarkable handful. Back in the middle-eight battleground, the masterful Brian Howard delivered his best yet in 2019.

Others followed their stellar example, notably the defensive trio of David Byrne, Philly McMahon and John Small (who largely nullified Ruairí Deane in his latest man-marking mission); Fenton and Macauley at midfield; Kilkenny and Scully up front.

True, it wasn't foot-perfect. Stephen Cluxton had to be razor-sharp to repel goal chances for Brian Hurley (who should have squared to Luke Connolly) and Taylor but he had no chance from Connolly's 46th-minute penalty.

At the other end, Cormac Costello fluffed his only two deadball opportunities and must fear the axe after Rock clipped 0-5 from five shots (four from placed balls).

That would suggest Deano's interlude on the bench may be drawing to a close. With Jonny Cooper and James McCarthy making late cameos off the very same bench, it's looking good for Dublin ... and ominous for all the rest.

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