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Royals can rely on fire-power

STATISTICS can be used to prove even the most nebulous argument but here is one figure that tells you plenty about the current well-being of Meath, Offaly and, for that matter, Leinster football.

When these counties met in a football and hurling provincial double bill in 1998, 48,856 supporters piled through the Croke Park turnstiles.

There's a very good reason why tomorrow's renewal of this old, almost-forgotten, rivalry is not taking place at HQ -- Croker would probably be akin to a ghost town. We'll hazard a guess that the place would scarcely be one-fifth full.

As it stands, you will have even fewer 'Meathies' taking the longer road to Portlaoise but they will still easily outnumber the wavering supporters of Offaly, not to mention Louth and Longford who top off the double-bill at 4pm.

The Leinster Council is expecting a crowd of between 10,000 and 12,000 -- reasonably healthy in the context of a provincial ground setting, but still light years removed from '98.

These things should be viewed in context, of course. Twelve years ago, Offaly were setting out in defence of their Leinster crown having stunned the then All-Ireland champions, Meath, in '97 in the final. Ergo, the Royals were out for revenge and the Faithful were buoyed by their first ever NFL title, coming just a month previously.


Two high-profile bosses, Seán Boylan and Tommy Lyons, were getting ready to engage in a battle of sideline wits and there was a genuine feeling, among the wider public, that whoever prevailed would emerge as a genuine contender for not just Leinster, but All-Ireland honours.

Oh, and one other thing ... whoever lost was kaput for the season. No 'back door' meant no second chance and no holds barred from the players; it also meant fans were more inclined to nail their colours to the mast in May.

Today is a very different place. Offaly have completely slipped off the radar since bucking the noughties trend to reach the 2006 Leinster final. Meath's provincial travails are even more startling: they haven't qualified for a final since beating Dublin in the 2001 decider.

The perverse thing about Meath is that, while initially under Boylan they struggled to get their heads around the qualifier concept, they have more recently flourished on the scenic route. How else could they have qualified for two of the last three All-Ireland semi-finals?

For all that, their limitations have been badly exposed at the penultimate stage (by Cork in '07 and Kerry last year) and their humdrum National League form this spring scarcely suggested a team poised to take the next quantum leap.

They won all four home games and lost all three away. Beating Kildare on the last day was encouraging, yet doubts about their defence -- especially -- have been exacerbated by the injuries that rule out full-back Kevin Reilly and centre-back Conor McGuinness tomorrow.

As a result, manager Eamonn O'Brien has gone with a repackaged defensive spine of Anthony Moyles and Michael Burke. Moyles has been a standout servant in so many positions for Meath, yet his enforced spell at full-back last summer hardened the belief that this is not ideal terrain for the versatile veteran.

Offaly will spy hope in those defensive injuries, for the very reason that their strongest suit is the full-forward division of Ken Casey, John Reynolds and especially Niall McNamee. Yet for Tom Cribbin's outsiders to prevail, they must get plentiful ball into the inside line and then hope that McNamee suffers no reaction to his recent quad muscle injury.

Even if those Offaly forwards flourish, though, the suspicion remains that Meath's inside aces will score even more. Offaly chopped and changed their defence in the course of an ultimately disappointing league campaign: they had the second worst defensive record in Division Three, conceding 10-86, and leaking half of those goals in the last round to Louth.


We'll discover tomorrow whether the latest rearguard revamp fares any better. Cribbin must certainly hope there is no repeat of the hara-kiri defending that effectively ended their Leinster ambitions in the opening quarter against Kildare, exactly 12 months ago at the same venue.

In fairness, Cribbin was only a few weeks in the job back then whereas now he has had 14 months to put his stamp on the team. He goes with a mix of imported power (Dubliner John Coughlan) and experience (the perennial Ciarán McManus) at midfield but the Offaly pair will still be conceding size to Nigel Crawford and Mark Ward, who has come back into form and favour this year.

Presuming the latter win their share or possession, the odds are stacked in favour of Joe Sheridan, Cian Ward, Shane O'Rourke and Stephen Bray delivering the scores that propel Meath onto a quarter-final date with Laois.

ODDS: Meath 1/3, Draw 9/1, Offaly 14/5


MEATH: P O'Rourke; C O'Connor, A Moyles, E Harrington; G O'Brien, M Burke, C King; N Crawford, M Ward; S Kenny, J Sheridan, G Reilly; C Ward, S O'Rourke, S Bray.

OFFALY: A Mulhall; B Darby, S Brady, P Sullivan; S Sullivan, R Dalton, K Slattery; C McManus, J Coughlan; N Darby, B Connor, S Ryan; K Casey, J Reynolds, N McNamee.