Dubs made to sweat for title success
Gritty Royals are shaken off by late surge but off-colour Blues reveal defensive vulnerability Dublin 2-15 Meath 0-14
A scoreline that was perhaps predicable but not in the manner that it was constructed.
Dublin claimed an eighth Leinster football title in nine years to further embellish their dominance in the province, handing young men like Paul Mannion, Ciaran Kilkenny and Jack McCaffrey their first taste of senior championship success.
But the victory will have a slightly hollow feel after previous runaway successes in the province as for 59 minutes they couldn't shake a determined and smart Meath team off their coat-tails.
Meath lost the corresponding fixture by just a goal 12 months ago but ironically they will take greater energy from what transpired in a 60th championship meeting between the sides.
Time and time again they asked searching questions of Dublin that had not been asked by Westmeath or Kildare in either of their two matches. And the answers weren't always provided by the team in blue.
Written off to an unprecedented level beforehand – the bookmakers saw this as an eight- to nine-point handicap – it certainly never felt that the gap would be as much as that even though it crept up to it.
But this Dublin team has the capacity to ghost away from opponents in an instant and Mannion's sublime strike on 59 minutes, after Kevin O'Brien's initial effort had been parried by the excellent Paddy O'Rourke, was reflective of a young man with a high level of international schoolboy experience behind him. It killed the game as a contest.
Meath will reflect on a couple of incidents in the build-up to that defining goal that pushed Dublin 2-13 to 0-13 clear.
First Joe Sheridan, a second-half substitute, tamely dropped a shot into Stephen Cluxton's hands. Then Graham Reilly was met with a perfect shoulder by James McCarthy as he launched himself on a trademark run down the Hogan Stand side. Dublin broke quickly and Mannion's smooth finish drew a line under it. From that position Dublin should probably have kicked on but the defiance in Meath was admirable right to the finish.
It is their biggest defeat to Dublin in a championship match since the 10-point reversal in 1995 but that shouldn't dilute the feeling that Mick O'Dowd has laid a firm platform for future years to work from.
From the opening two minutes when Stephen Bray twice slipped Rory O'Carroll for points, it was clear that they were going to maximise the liberal amount of space that Dublin's system allows for opponents. Dublin responded with a goal from the ever-productive Paul Flynn on five minutes after Mannion and Kilkenny's approach work, but the same impetus gained from an early goal against Kildare didn't materialise.
Instead the concerns over the exposure of the Dublin full-back line continued to surface with Mickey Newman eventually taking over as the chief threat from Bray. His movement was sublime.
But other problems surfaced for Dublin further outfield. Michael Darragh Macauley and Cian O'Sullivan provide a mobile midfield partnership commensurate with Gavin's idea of how he wants Dublin to play but they were stretched at kick-out time, winning eight of Stephen Cluxton's 14 in the first half but just 10 from 25 in total in the first half.
From that platform Meath were able to forge ahead with Newman really finding his feet towards the end of the half, landing some monster scores from frees on the back of a strong wind as they hit six in a row from the 26th minute as Dublin failed to land a blow and their 0-9 to 1-4 lead was justified.
Inevitably, it was Kilkenny who lit the fuse for the assertion of Dublin control once more. So productive in the first half from his playmaking role at centre-forward, he had a hand in the first Dublin goal and created another gilt-edged chance with a pass for Diarmuid Connolly on 22 minutes which drew a great save from O'Rourke.
Kilkenny, at just 20, has emerged as the leader of the attack, complementing Flynn's industry beside him. His patience and eye for an opening improves with every game. In contrast, Bernard Brogan's slump in form continues.
For the third successive game he was withdrawn from the action and nothing underlined his eroding confidence more than the free he kicked in the opening half. Like a nervous sand wedge there was deceleration in the strike and it fell well short of target. To progress, Dublin need a much more effusive Brogan and that seems some distance away.
Being marked by the ever tenacious Donal Keogan didn't give him much liberty but O'Dowd might regret not deploying Keogan on Mannion in the other corner at one stage where Mickey Burke had his hands full.
Kilkenny got the recovery rolling on within 13 seconds of the restart as Macauley and O'Sullivan combined off the throw-in to set up the first of his three scores within six minutes. In all, he handled the ball some 30 times, well above the average for even the most productive players. His third point on 41 minutes gave Dublin a 1-9 to 0-10 lead but points from Brian Meade and a superb solo effort from Newman brought parity again within two minutes.
Crucial for Dublin was the arrival of Denis Bastick for O'Sullivan at midfield to add a rugged presence that saw him make one crucial tackle on Paddy Gilsenan and intercept Newman. He just offered them a better foothold.
Meath had a couple of goal chances of their own towards the end of the third quarter when Bray put in Wallace. But he couldn't realign his feet quickly enough and Cluxton dealt easily with a soft shot into his hands.
The elegant Mannion from a free and play had lifted Dublin into a 1-12 to 0-12 lead when Bray rounded a struggling Ger Brennan and let fly from 20 metres. But again Cluxton was comfortable.
At the other end the captain fired over two frees and a '45' but his return was just three from seven.
Meath will reflect on other aspects that could have got the scoreline a lot closer. Graham Reilly was like a magnet for blue shirts every time he got possession and too often ran himself into trouble. And once Mannion's goal went in they were chasing goals with pressure Dublin could easily absorb.
It lacked the blood and thunder of some previous Dublin-Meath clashes but provided a timely check for Dublin ahead of much more testing battles in August. The changes they have to make spoke for themselves here.
Scorers – Dublin: P Mannion 1-4 (2fs), P Flynn 1-1, S Cluxton (2fs, 1'45'), C Kilkenny 0-3 each, D Rock 0-2 (1f), D Connolly, B Brogan (f) 0-1 each. Meath: M Newman 0-8 (5fs), S Bray, E Wallace 0-2 each, J Sheridan, B Meade 0-1 each.
Dublin – S Cluxton 8; K O'Brien 7, R O'Carroll 6, J Cooper 5; J McCarthy 7, G Brennan 6, J McCaffrey 7; MD Macauley 7, C O'Sullivan 5; P Flynn 8, C Kilkenny 9, D Connolly 6; P Mannion 9, E O'Gara 5, B Brogan 5. Subs: D Bastick 8 for O'Sullivan (46), K McManamon 6 for O'Gara (46), D Daly 6 for Brennan (57), D Rock 7 for Brogan (60), B Cullen for Connolly (66).
Meath – P O'Rourke 8; D Keogan 8, K Reilly 7, M Burke 6; S Kenny 6, P Harnan 6, B Menton 7; B Meade 7, C Gillespie 8; P Byrne 5, D Carroll 5, G Reilly 5; E Wallace 6, S Bray 8, M Newman 9. Subs: P Gilsenan 6 for Byrne (42), C Lenihan 5 for Kenny (50), J Sheridan 5 for Carroll (52), A Tormey 5 for Meade (60), D McDonagh for Wallace (66).
Ref – E Kinsella (Laois)
Game at a glance
Man of the match
Ciaran Kilkenny (Dublin)
A second successive man-of-the-match award for Kilkenny, who orchestrated everything from centre-forward, handling the ball some 30 times and finishing with three points, all in that period just after half-time when they wrestled momentum back off Meath. Almost on his own in the first half up front, his creativity made many openings that weren't always taken.
Meath have asked the first serious questions in this championship of Dublin's game plan, exposing chinks in the full-back line and at midfield, where Meath were largely dominant from kick-outs, especially in the first half.
Getting Denis Bastick on the field on 46 minutes to help break the dominance Meath had at midfield was critical but James McCarthy's hit on a flying Graham Reilly on the Hogan Stand side had a direct link to Dublin's second goal on 59 minutes that made the game safe.
Neither side can have any real argument about Eddie Kinsella's handling of the game. Managed to run things smoothly throughout, helped by the attitude of both sets of players.
Mickey Newman's equalising point on 42 minutes saw him sell two superb dummies and fire over a third point from play in impressive style.
What they said
"There were a lot of hard questions asked of the team, probably for the first time since we played in the National League final. And that's twice they responded. I'm happy in that regard."
Mick O'Dowd (Meath manager):
"We came up to win, not to see how we would get on against them."
Dublin 12 (7 in first half)
Meath 5 (4)
Dublin 19 (10)
Meath 20 (15)
Dublin 2 (K O'Brien 34, P Flynn 45)
Meath 4 (P Harnan 30, D Carroll 44, M Burke 67, A Tormey 72)
Dublin advance to All-Ireland quarter-final on the first weekend in August. Meath are in this morning's fourth-round qualifier draw for a match that will take place in two weeks' time.