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Saturday 17 November 2018

Onus will be on chasing pack to close gap on Dubs in 2019 - Bonner

Connacht and Ulster champions both given stark reminder of Blues dominance

GOAL: Galway’s Damien Comer celebrates after scoring a goal against Dublin in last August’s All-Ireland SFC semi-final at Croke Park. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
GOAL: Galway’s Damien Comer celebrates after scoring a goal against Dublin in last August’s All-Ireland SFC semi-final at Croke Park. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile

As televised draws go, last Thursday's in Montrose was, through no fault of RTÉ's, perhaps the least eventful in recent Irish sporting history.

The fixtures for the provincial stage of the hurling championship, the throbbing heartbeat of the Irish sporting summer just passed, had already been set and publicised during the week.

Of the balls that had to be pulled out of the drums on the night, we already knew that Cork and Kerry would be kept apart in Munster, that Galway and Mayo would begin their 2019 Connacht campaigns on foreign soil and that no contrivance of possibilities could make the Leinster SFC worth talking about.

Meanwhile, Cormac Costello was in the studio to give the official Dublin reaction to being fixed to play Louth or Wexford in seven and a half months' time and deny all knowledge of the number of All-Irelands Jim Gavin's men would win in succession should they prevail again in 2019.

Mostly though, the talk backstage where the interviews of the lavish array of guests were being conducted, was about Dublin.

How good are Dublin? Are they the greatest team ever?

Can they be beaten? How big is the gap?

Metric

And who can plausibly bridge that chasm before they enshrine their legacy with that almost mythical five-in-a-row next autumn?

If there is an accurate metric of Dublin's improvement during 2018, their performances against Galway are probably it.

A salty draw in Salthill preceded a four-point League final victory for Dublin in Croke Park a fortnight later.

RIVALS: Donegal manager Declan Bonner shakes hands with Dublin’s Jim Gavin following
their All-Ireland SFC quarter-final Group 2 Phase 1 clash back in July. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
RIVALS: Donegal manager Declan Bonner shakes hands with Dublin’s Jim Gavin following their All-Ireland SFC quarter-final Group 2 Phase 1 clash back in July. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Yet the difference between them three months later in the All-Ireland semi-final told the story of one team moving stealthily into overdrive and the other struggling to find a higher gear.

Galway, according to their captain Damien Comer, were "bitterly disappointed not to have taken out Dublin or even challenge Dublin that bit more in that game".

Unlike most, he doesn't reach for the simple 'Dublin were the better team' excuse either, although Comer is acutely aware of the perception.

That day, Galway went in at half-time two points down ruing Stephen Cluxton's save from Eamonn Brannigan's penalty, part of what Comer calculates as "1-6 or 1-7" that his team denied themselves in that half through inaccuracy.

"Against any big team, you have to be taking them if you want to have any chance of coming out the right side and we didn't.

"If we had taken them, we could have easily gone in three or four points up rather than two points down.

"So when you look back at that … look, there's no guarantee to say it would have been perfect and we'd have been four points up going into half-time.

"That's easy in hindsight to say. But we were only two points down. It was evenly balanced but they just peeled away in the second half."

"There's no denying that they're a serious team. And they've proven that over the last few years.

"But I just think that if you stand back and admire them, they'll do to you what they do to most teams.

"So you have to go and play them and attack them and I think we did that well in stages in the first half.

"But I think we fell short because our conversion ratio wasn't good enough."

Similarly, Declan Bonner can look back on a debut season in charge of Donegal wherein they won an Ulster title but will be remembered for the disastrous final throes of their 'Super 8' loss to Tyrone in Ballybofey.

Before that, they lost to Dublin by five points in Croke Park and as Bonner sees it, the new format suits Jim Gavin's team.

"I mean, Dublin can afford - they have not lost in the championship since 2014 - you might get them on the day, but it's probably difficult to see Dublin being beaten twice in 2019," he points out.

"It's up to the rest of the counties that's in that bracket to go and try and close that gap, try and bridge that gap.

"Yeah, I think it can be done, but it's going to take a huge effort on everyone's part."

Though they will have no effect on the 2019 Championship, the proposed new playing rules will clearly change the dynamic of Dublin's dominance should they become permanent.

Whether the rules are partly aimed at diluting their supremacy is open to interpretation.

But at a time when Dublin's kick-out retention is higher than ever, the rules committee are seeking to completely redraw the terms of engagement at restarts.

And just as their ability to cradle possession is reaching an untouchable peak for everyone else, a limit on the number of consecutive hand passes is being proposed.

"In that last 10 minutes of our match they held possession for long periods of time," Bonner recalls.

Progressive

"It's very difficult because Dublin are at a level.

"The rest of us are probably chasing it.

"It's one thing to try and limit Dulbin and watch where they are strong and you have to do that

"I think it's a case of let's see where we can go ourselves, let's see where we can be progressive.

"Let's see what we can prove going forward."

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