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Wednesday 13 November 2019

Meath emerging from the pack of Leinster title contenders

Laois' Ross Munnelly is tackled by Louth's Dan Corcoran (c) and Emmet Carolan during their NFL Division 3 match in February
Laois' Ross Munnelly is tackled by Louth's Dan Corcoran (c) and Emmet Carolan during their NFL Division 3 match in February

If there was one recent moment that summed up the lamentable current state of the Leinster SFC, it came after last year's final during Laois manager, John Sugrue's post-match press conference.

Laois had begun the season, Sugrue's first, in Division 4 of the League.

Commendably, they came to Croke Park and early in their first Leinster final appearance in 10 years, caused Dublin the sort of hassle they don't often experience in provincial combat, mostly through kicked diagonal passes to Donie Kingston at the edge of the square and by utilising Graham Brody as a ball-playing 'fly' goalkeeper.

It took until the closing minutes of the first half, when Dublin rattled off five points in a row, for Jim Gavin's team to create a cushion for themselves.

Asked in those initial moments after defeat how confident he could was prior that Laois would be competitive against Dublin in Croke Park, Sugrue replied: "I was reasonably confident we could have a go at them.

"And," he added with a spiky edge, "I was probably the only one who was reasonably confident, by the looks of things…including yee guys."

Dublin had just outscored his team by 0-22 to 0-5 from the 27th minute until full-time.

Unloved

It was their 57th provincial title and an eighth in a row.

Jim Gavin's team's 18-point margin was their biggest Leinster final win in a decade during which they have reduced the competition to a slow-burning inevitability and the GAA's most unloved entity.

Yet Sugrue intimated that Laois had proved some of their doubters wrong.

Hopes aren't palpably higher for a more competitive Leinster SFC this year, particularly after Kildare's failure to mount a successful promotion bid and the alarming nature of their final day defeat in Ballyshannon last week.

But the involvement of three counties from the province this weekend can only be positive.

In Drogheda tomorrow, Louth and Westmeath will play for the right to join Sugrue's Laois - who achieved a second successive promotion last weekend and look better equipped to make further ground - in next year's Division 2.

It means that in 2019, five of the 11 participants in the Leinster SFC will play their spring trade in the top two divisions - Dublin and Meath in Division 1 with Kildare, Laois and one of Westmeath and Louth in the second tier, the highest representation from the eastern province in a decade.

Inevitably then, Meath's performance in Croke Park against Donegal tomorrow in the Division 2 final will be viewed through the prism of their potential to be competitive with Dublin in a Leinster final on June 23 should both team's form hold.

Promotion to Division 1 clinched last weekend in Navan was the first bankable sign of Meath's genuine progress under Andy McEntee after a couple of seasons of stunted growth featuring dispiriting Leinster SFC losses to Kildare and Longford.

Crying

Their trajectory is undeniable now but quite how far they can travel between now and the middle of summer is still largely unpredictable.

As Cillian O'Sullivan said recently: "Meath people are crying out for us to be competitive again.

"I'd say the Leinster Council are crying out for us to be competitive again. To be honest, I'd imagine even the Dubs would like us to be competitive again.

"They're looking around for a challenge and the only ones challenging them at the minute is themselves."

Meath are both the last team to beat Dublin in Leinster back in 2010 and now, the county that appears to carry the greatest threat.

Spring silverware would round off their preparations nicely.

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