Colm O'Rourke: Royal battle for midfield jungle
Meath young guns will struggle to cope with Dubs' raw power, pace and precision, writes Colm O'Rourke
First of all, who decided that next weekend's qualifiers have to be played on Saturday? Just because there are hurling quarter-finals on Sunday does not mean that the losers of today's provincial finals should not get an extra day's rest and play on the Sabbath.
It is an absolute disgrace that teams are being penalised for making progress in their provincial championships. Because Leinster and Ulster are the last finals to be played, their teams are at a huge disadvantage, the statistics for beaten provincial finalists who play six days later clearly show that.
A winning team playing six days later is in a much better position. I hope the county boards of whichever sides lose today make sure to have their games next Sunday rather than Saturday, it is the very least they deserve. One day is critical after a defeat at this stage to help physical and, more importantly, emotional recovery.
Neither Dublin nor Meath will entertain that possibility before the game today, but every good general has his retreat well mapped out in advance. It is good, too, that this match will focus on teams as distinct from individual players and their antics. Last week, it was Conor Mortimer who spat out the dummy because he was not selected for Mayo. There was a time when if you joined the army, you wore the boots. In other words, being part of the squad meant you had to take the rough decisions with the smooth and if you were left out, then you just worked harder to get back in.
Today is an especially big day for most of the Meath team, who are playing in their first Leinster final against Dublin. While Dublin are in almost every Leinster final these days, Meath have drifted back into the peloton over the last decade, even if I always feel that with the interest and resources in Meath we should be challenging for a Leinster title most years. It is only by setting out a blueprint for high standards in every aspect of football, from administration through management and on to players, that those standards will be achieved.
Dublin are the benchmark now, this is the only standard for Meath players to measure themselves by. That means that a Meath player must be able to perform at this level in this frightening, fantastic environment if he is ever to be called a good, never mind a great, county player.
It does not necessarily mean winning every time, nor indeed always playing well -- we all had our failures in that regard -- but if you are not able to perform fairly regularly in this furnace then you are only a league or challenge match player. That may appear harsh but after 10 minutes today, all those young Meath players will know that playing Dublin in a Leinster final is a different experience. Some will cope easily, the occasion will bring more out of them, others will find the game just passes them by. They will wake up tomorrow and wonder, after all the time and energy spent preparing, why it was all a daze. We have all experienced that.
The big question most Meath people are asking is whether the performance against Kildare was a one-off or is it a sign of a team on the move? Meath have beaten Dublin with a lot of rookies in finals before, 1964 and '86 being two examples. There is no reason why age or inexperience should be a barrier, a player has to start winning sometime. At the very least the Meath team must be hard physically, mentally and never give in. After that, we must accept what the good Lord brings.
The certainties from Dublin today are that they will be organised, methodical and certainly won't take Meath for granted. Perhaps there was a bit of that with Kildare, even if they will never admit to it. The last time Meath and Dublin met will have stuck in all the Dublin players' minds. Meath scored five goals. That will not happen today, but a couple would probably mean winning, especially as the golden rule for Meath teams against Dublin has always been to never concede a goal, as it is worth more than three points to them.
Dublin appear to have picked their team with Meath in mind. The half-back line of James McCarthy, Kevin Nolan and Cian O'Sullivan will have the pace to cope with Forde, Damien Carroll and Graham Reilly. Of course, pace is only one part of the game and O'Sullivan would probably be on most of the time anyway if he was not injured so often. He gives away frees easily so Meath should take him on; while he is a very good player, it is surprising that Ger Brennan is left out.
At the other end, Michael Darragh Macauley is named at full-forward. A nuisance of a name when he is asked for a quick autograph, he is likely to play much further out the field and leave the inside to Bernard Brogan and Kevin McManamon. Brogan had his knuckles rapped after the last game, it reminded me of one of the greatest comments Con Houlihan made about a Meath player long ago when he said, "he won possession easily but he hoarded it like a miser and spent it like a prodigal."
Pat Gilroy demonstrated clearly, as he did last year, that this was not acceptable. Bernard Brogan will want to show today that he can play for the team and score plenty himself. He is very difficult to manage, and Kevin Reilly or Brian Menton will find that out early. Maybe the two of them should mark him.
The key to stopping the Dublin attack is to disrupt Alan Brogan. He makes the moves, opens up the spaces, gives in good ball and can score too. Another absolute handful because of his pace. Add in McManamon, who can solo away at speed, score points and goals while getting battered from all angles, and it is easy to see why Dublin dominate Leinster.
Meath need very big performances from their more experienced players today. Men like Cian Ward, Kevin Reilly, Joe Sheridan, Brian Farrell and Brian Meade have to perform as pack horses and carry a lot of the load. Brian Menton, Damian Carroll, Graham Reilly, Conor Gillespie and Alan Forde pose a different type of puzzle to Dublin, but they cannot be expected to be the main leaders and Dublin will have noted how much easy possession Meath got around midfield against Kildare. Macauley, Paul Flynn and Bryan Cullen are there to ensure every ball is fought for and a price is paid if the opposition win it. That, in effect, is where Meath's main problem may lie -- how to win enough ball that will fall in the jungle around midfield.
This is the game and place where Meath need to be, but there is a certain sense of foreboding as well. Dublin are champions because they have power, pace and finish games well as their tremendous fitness and bench can make an impact in the last quarter of every big game. Meath have youth and a refreshing approach and will play in a less structured way than Dublin, who at times are military-like in the way their lines move.
On semi-final form, Meath have a real chance, but this assumes the Royals can play like they did against Kildare and also that Dublin are as poor as they were against Wexford. Logic dictates a Dublin victory, even if the power of human emotion, which Meath can muster, can overcome all odds. Even with that, it still looks like Dublin.
Sunday Indo Sport