Saturday 10 December 2016

Martin Breheny: GAA should be concerned with Dublin's sustained dominance in Leinster

Tomorrow should be the province's big day but, as in recent years, Dublin are 1/100 to win the final while Westmeath are 25/1. Martin Breheny examines what has happened, looks for any sign of a change and asks what damage it is doing

Published 16/07/2016 | 02:30

Diarmuid Connolly on the charge in the Leinster SFC semi-final against Meath. The bookmakers have Dublin as red hot favourites to win their sixth Leinster title in a row tomorrow. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Diarmuid Connolly on the charge in the Leinster SFC semi-final against Meath. The bookmakers have Dublin as red hot favourites to win their sixth Leinster title in a row tomorrow. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

So where's the eastern promise? Where's the occasion for Leinster to celebrate its status as the biggest province and home of the All-Ireland champions? Where's the glittering finale to its football championship.

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Instead, it's a 25/1 shot matching up against 1/100 favourites, with Dublin even money to beat Westmeath by 15 or more points.

It's the unfortunate state-of-play with a superiority fashioned by possibly the best squad Dublin has ever produced but there's also another dimension to it, one that should be of concern to the Leinster Council and indeed the wider GAA.

For while Dublin are setting extremely high standards, virtually all of their Leinster rivals appear to be headed in the other direction - certainly at senior level.

Longford have been an exception in recent weeks, beating Down and Monaghan, but then they have long been more comfortable in the All-Ireland qualifiers than the Leinster Championship.

That's underlined by their record since the 'back door' opened in 2001. They have won 16 qualifiers, compared with four games in Leinster, which raises the question of whether they would be better off under a championship format not based on the four provinces.

Impressive

Longford apart, no other Leinster county has done anything to suggest they are closing the gap between them and Dublin.

And while Longford can certainly boast an impressive record in the qualifiers, they came up 27 points short against Dublin last year.

Judgement on Westmeath will be reserved until tomorrow when they test themselves in an environment which will be altogether more demanding than what they experienced against Offaly and Kildare last month.

The Leinster Council acknowledged the disparity problem in the province two years ago and proposed a round-robin format in the early stages in an attempt to have teams who reached the semi-finals better prepared for the step up.

It wasn't exactly a revolutionary idea but they still couldn't proceed with it without a change to the rules governing the championship as round-robin formats are excluded in football.

Since it had unanimous backing among all its counties, Leinster were confident of getting the required backing at Congress 2015.

Leinster chairman John Horan made a coherent argument for the change but while the proposal won a 61-39 per cent majority, it fell short of the two-thirds requirement.

A 52-48 per cent majority was enough to take Britain out of the EU but 61-39 failed to force a change of rule on how the football championships are run. How utterly bizarre is that?

Read more: Cribbin sets Westmeath a scoring target they have never reached before against Dublin

The fact that 39 per cent voted against Leinster shows how disconnected counties can be with issues not directly related to them.

Nobody was proposing that Connacht, Ulster or Munster apply a 'round robin', yet several counties in those provinces voted against a change of rule which would have made it possible for Leinster to introduce a system that they considered helpful. It's a classic example of democracy not working in the best interests of all.

Leinster were very disappointed with the rejection of their proposal and are likely to make another attempt to have the rule changed at next year's Congress.

Certainly, nothing changed in 2015-2016 (at least not unless Westmeath win tomorrow) to indicate that the need for a revamped Leinster Championship is any less urgent that it was at the end of 2014.

They have not decided how many counties would participate in the 'round robin' but CEO Michael Reynolds said earlier this year that it could be as many as eight.

Last year, he wrote in his annual report that there were "three, if not four, levels of standard" in Leinster.

In reality, every county other than Dublin could be considered 'round robin' candidates at a time when the gap between the champions and the rest is so wide.

Granted, Dublin's winning margins this year - 11 points against Laois and ten against Meath - is down on their average over the past three seasons but it would be daft to think that has any real significance.

Dublin had Laois well-beaten after an early scoring surge in the quarter-final, while they eased off in the closing stages against Meath, content to practise their keep-ball game, presumably in preparation for another day when the opposition is more dangerous.

Effectively, Dublin were able to use Croke Park on Leinster semi-final day as a training ground. It sums up the situation in a province which will have eight counties in Division 3 and 4 next year.

Kildare and Meath will be in Division 2, with Dublin the only county in the top flight.

The sharp decline in Meath, Kildare, Laois and Offaly really is alarming. They have all endured down periods in the past but this time, they have come together and are prolonged.

And when that's coupled with Dublin's excellence, it doubles the impact. Meath haven't beaten any non-Leinster opposition in the championship since the qualifier win over Galway in 2011, a terrible indictment of a county that enjoyed so much success between 1986 and 2001.

By the start of play next year, they will have gone 11 years without spending even one season in Division 1. They finished fifth in Division 2 this year, needing to beat Laois in the final game to avoid the drop to Division 3.

It's difficult to understand how a county like Meath could sink so far down the rankings. Not keeping pace with Dublin is one thing but slipping towards the tail end of Division 2 is altogether different.

Read more: Seems to me there's a perfect storm brewing and it's not bringing good news for the GAA

Kildare did even worse, dropping into Division 3 in 2015 and while they were promoted at the first attempt, they have done nothing in the championship to suggest they are making substantial progress.

They stunned Cork in a Round 4 qualifier last year but it's very difficult to envisage them repeating that feat against Mayo in Castlebar this evening.

One encouraging development for Kildare has been the quality of their underage sides in recent years. It's continuing this season, having qualified for the Leinster minor final for a fourth successive year while the U-21s were unlucky to lose to Dublin in the final.

There are signs of improvement at younger age levels in Meath too but it could still take quite a few years for that to manifest itself at senior level.

Laois are back in this year's Leinster minor final for the first time in nine years, which is also encouraging for a county that enjoyed a great run in the grade in the 1990s.

Embarrassingly

Dublin's underage dominance is now being challenged in a manner that gives hope to other Leinster counties for the future but, as of now, the divide at senior level is embarrassingly wide.

Dublin are tomorrow virtually certain to win a sixth successive Leinster title for the first time since 1974-79 but there's no comparison in how the impressive feat will have been achieved.

They have been largely unchallenged for the past five years, whereas Meath and Offaly, in particular, pushed them hard in the 1970s before the latter supplanted them as champions in 1980.

There was a time when the Leinster final was a seasonal highlight on the GAA calendar but now it's regarded as no more than Dublin's last warm-up before heading for the All-Ireland circuit.

Interest among the wider GAA public will be much more focused on the Ulster final and the Connacht final replay tomorrow.

Few would have envisaged such a scenario some years ago but Dublin's brilliance and the decline of the others has robbed Leinster of the most basic ingredient of all - competitiveness.

The other provinces may see it as a Leinster issue only but when counties like Meath and Kildare fall so far behind Dublin, it has wider implications.

Tomorrow's final is unlikely to do much to assuage fears that the Leinster Championship really is in serious trouble.

Irish Independent

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