THE joke amongst the scattering of hardy Wicklow souls in Greystones yesterday as DCU disembarked their team bus was that the reigning O'Byrne and Sigerson Cup champions had more inter-county players than the home side.
It's an old one, particularly voided by DCU's understrength artillery in yesterday's draw but the covert, over-the-shoulder glances from the Wicklow players engaged in their warm-up on the adjoining pitch to see who exactly was stepping off the bus just illustrated the Northside college's growing reputation.
And at the end of the game, it was the county team hanging on for a 1-12 to 2-9 draw against a fresher, zippier college outfit, clearly further down the road in the fitness stakes and not close to full strength.
"The one thing some of our lads didn't understand before was just how physically stronger the opposition were going to be at this level," commented DCU boss Niall Moyna after his hotchpotch selection had shredded a six-point half-time deficit and then proceeded to spurn a stack of good-to-great chances to claim both points in the O'Byrne Cup's very own answer to 'The Group of Death'.
Predictably, Wicklow boss Harry Murphy also pronounced himself satisfied with the work-out, the result and, most importantly, the willingness of his players to huff and puff until their legs gave way.
Typical January stuff really. DCU's team was young - very young - and so Wicklow dictated the terms of physical engagement early on. "Those hits and the ferocity of them, it took them probably 20 minutes to get into the game," agreed Moyna. "But I think once we did. . . we had far more chances in the second half to win it. We probably should have won it at the end but it's a great workout for us."
Blessington's Anthony McLoughlin carved through from midfield for a couple of early points and Matthew Byrne impressively kicked all but one of his five frees against a swirling, unpredictable breeze.
They also got a goal from Brendan McCrea, an opportunist finish after a line fluff from the DCU full-back line from a long delivery.
Whether by design or not though, DCU had a far stronger look about them in the last 10 minutes than they had in the first half.
At that stage, Cavan's Jack Brady had entered the fray and bagged a goal after stellar work from DCU's latest recruit, Michael Quinn of Longford, who had a fine game at centre-back. Yet the most influential change of the match came at half-time when Dublin prospect Craig Dunleavy was introduced to midfield and immediately established a sturdy platform from which Fiontán Ó Curraoin of Galway was freed to ramble and roam as he pleased.
"Dublin have got to be looking very seriously at him," said Moyna of Dunleavy, the St Oliver Plunkett's/ Eoghan Ruadh midfielder who is currently part of Jim Gavin's chosen 50.
"I think he made a huge difference in the second half because we were able to win primary possession."
Paul Flynn arrived too and a couple of minutes later, so did Louth's Brian Donnelly, who not only levelled the match for DCU but also spurned the best of a large cast of late chances to win it.
No matter. DCU's priorities, as Moyna outlined, are slightly different from this time last year.
"It's a means to an end for us," he explained. "The fact that we're guaranteed three games this year, we're approaching it from an entirely different perspective. We know we'll get three games whereas you had to win in previous years to be able to keep having quality games.
"The fact we know we have three good games in a week means we can try things and the pressure is off and try a lot of new players with the first team. For us, I got five or six players out of today."
"It's great. We get three games before the Sigerson Cup. They (Wicklow) get three games before the National League. You're not playing some Mickey Mouse Shield game if you lose your first match. It's a much better format," he concluded.
SCORERS - Wicklow: M Byrne 0-5 (4f); B McCrea 1-1; D Healy, A McLoughlin 0-2 each; J Stafford, R Finn (f), J Stafford 0-1 each. DCU: J McCarron 1-2; J Brady 1-1 (0-1f); D Smith 0-3; M Quinn, P Dooney, B Donnelly 0-1 each.
WICKLOW: J Flynn; C Hyland, J Kelly, P Cunningham; S Byrne, P McWalter, L Benson; J Stafford, A McLoughlin; D Healy, R Finn, P Dalton; M Byrne, P Earls, B McCrea. Subs: E Keogh for McCrea (ht), R Nolan for S Byrne (41), S Coen for Benson (47), I Sheeran for Cunningham (48).
DCU: W Hender-Phillips; K Sheridan, C Daly, W Lowry; E Doherty, M Quinn, M Concarr; F Ó Curraoin, P O'Hanlon; C Compton, C McGraynor, P Dooney; D Smith, J Quinn, J McCarron. Subs: J Smith for J Quinn (21), C Boyle for Sheridan (ht), C Ellis for Concarr (ht), P Flynn for McGraynor (54), B Donnelly for Dooney (65).
YELLOW CARDS - Wicklow: M Byrne (52), Coen (56). DCU: O'Hanlon (47).
REF: John Hickey (Carlow).
MAN OF THE MATCH: Fiontan O Curraoin (DCU).