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Clash of the titan scorers

WE doubt if Jack Nicholson will be among the white and green hordes in St Conleth's Park tomorrow, but one of his relatively recent movies titles springs to mind as we contemplate this collision of two teams who can't stop scoring.

And before any of you cynics chortle "Anger Management" (for these best of enemies) or "The Departed" (for whoever loses), we'll cut to the chase, peruse the January stats and come to the following conclusion: "Something's Gotta Give".

Both sides have played four and won four en route to the final. Meath have amassed 12 goals and 58 points to get here; Kildare have been even more frenetic in their scoreboard assaults, tallying 13 goals and 72 points.

Can both counties dare to dream of maintaining such a prolific strike rate when the intensity bar is raised tomorrow? Unlikely, it would seem, for neither has been leaking too generously at the other end.

Meath boss Mick O'Dowd expressed some mild concern about the concession of three goals to an emphatically second-best DCU last Sunday; but overall they have conceded 6-37 in those four games, for an average of under 1-11 per game.

Kildare have been even more frugal, shipping 2-37 while Pádraig Fogarty and Eoghan O'Flaherty were going score-crazy at the other end.

All the above evidence would suggest that both sides are attacking with a fluency not usually associated with pre-season fare.

This observer has seen each county once in the flesh in recent weeks – Kildare annihilating Longford, Meath ransacking DCU – and that was certainly the impression conveyed. They looked like squads who have plenty of fitness work in the tank but there wasn't any hint of legginess either: they were sharp of movement, with lots of energetic running off the shoulder, and the quality of passing/execution was not what you'd expect from teams who (as the January legend goes) are supposedly seeing far more cones than spherical white objects in training right now.

Cue the inevitable cautionary caveat: who have they played?

Kildare may have a famously long casualty list at the moment, but their fit-and-available options were operating at a completely different level than a mostly second-string Longford, who, harsh as it sounds, were distinctly third-rate.

DCU, it's true, were missing a few big names last Sunday, but that shouldn't excuse an alarmingly porous rearguard that could easily have shipped more than 4-18. Genuine Sigerson contenders? On this one-off evidence, we have our doubts.

Then again, surely the same could be said for a UCD defence that conceded 5-17 to Kildare and 4-3, all from play, to the one player (Fogarty)?

Mick O'Dowd summed it up accurately after witnessing Meath's 15-point success against DCU six days ago.

"I'd qualify everything by saying we have played three college teams and only one county team, and that was Wicklow," the Meath boss reminded.

"It is a pre-season tournament and it is important that players that are training hard get action.

"Years ago, the opening rounds of the league was when fellas were tried out.

"That's changed; it's such a competitive league that you need to be ready from the start. That's what the O'Byrne Cup is about now. "

He expanded: "The thing with the O'Byrne Cup is that you work your team and your squad the way you want to work it, and you have no real knowledge of what the opposition is going to do – as opposed to in the league when the best 15 or 20 that are on-form and injury-free, they start.

"Whereas in the O'Byrne Cup, you are seeing who has got time on the pitch and who is coming back from injury.

"That is why you are reintroducing somebody like (midfielder) Andrew Tormey, who hasn't played for a while; but you don't play him for 70 minutes, you get him off before there is a risk of injury. So throughout the O'Byrne Cup you are making all those decisions based around the squad ... the league comes then and it's hell-for-leather," O'Dowd concluded.


That said, don't be surprised if we encounter some hell-for-leather cameos tomorrow because ... well ... it's Kildare v Meath. Remember 12 months ago, when the Lilies faced Dublin? Parnell Park bore witness to a relentless, breathless O'Byrne Cup decider that even carried some of the cordite of the Championship and was only finally settled in Kildare's favour in extra-time. When old rivals square off, with a piece of tin on offer and pride at stake, matters can take on a life of their own.

On the team news front, O'Dowd has been true to his principles about spreading the game-time ... he makes eight changes.

While his top-scoring Man of the Match against DCU, promising rookie Cillian O'Sullivan, is not included, the Royals' scoring potential is bolstered by the return (en bloc) of last year's dynamic full-forward line – Éamonn Wallace, Stephen Bray and Mickey Newman.

His Kildare counterpart Jason Ryan confines himself to one change with the recall of goalkeeper Mark Donnellan in what resembles close to his strongest available line-up, injuries permitting.

Picking a winner here is fraught with peril, but home advantage might yet prove a marginal tie-breaker.

BOYLESPORTS ODDS: Kildare 10/11, Draw 15/2, Meath 11/10

VERDICT: Kildare