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Dubs tide to sink Laois

FOR once, it's been a smooth build up to the championship for Dublin – textbook, you might even call it. Making the League final shortened the distance between spring and summer, but it also taught Pat Gilroy lessons that would have gone unlearned until late July/early August.

Duly, he cut the panel, circled the wagons and looked forward. The preparations, he says, are incomparable to the malaise which afflicted his team around this time last year and the list of 15 names he has selected for tomorrow's joust with Laois is generally felt to be the most complete and in-form team he has ever committed to print. Plain sailing or the calm before the storm?

We've heard all week about Dublin's strengths, Dublin's maturity, experience and depth. But where, then, are the areas Dublin might be vulnerable? Well – and this won't come as a shock to anyone who has followed their fortunes over the past decade – the full-back line is the prime cause for concern. On paper, it looks good – featuring the same three players that shored up that line last year. All a year older and at least a little wiser. Upon closer analysis though, there remain legitimate question marks.

Rory O'Carroll slotting straight back in at number three will surprise no one, but Gilroy'sdecision to start him in his championship team for a first competitive inter-county match since last year's All-Ireland semifinal may owe more to medium- to long-term team planning as it does to him being the best man for the job on current form. At some stage tomorrow – it might even be from the start – he will face the burly Donie Kingston, a bigger and stronger man than O'Carroll himself, and his performance in coping with Laois's latest prodigy will provide a pretty accurate reflection of how his re-acclimatisation process is going. In the corners, Mick Fitzsimons has all the knacks, flicks and balance of a good corner-back but – as Owen Mulligan illustrated last year – he can struggle against a more physically developed opponent.

He also leaked 1-4 from play to Tomás Quinn in 35 minutes of a recent As versus Bs match so the form lines aren't exactly glowing. Philly McMahon, meanwhile, had a fine season last year, excelling particularly when ambling up the field in that spare-man role which suits his distribution skills so neatly. However, the fact remains that the only team to play a three-man inside forward line and force that trio to ‘man up' last year was Meath … and they scored five goals. Tomorrow, Billy Sheehan will drop deep for Laois, leaving Ross Munnelly and MJ Tierney inside so McMahon might be afforded that freedom again. However, Gilroy's hope must be that the line gets sufficient protection from in front, thus limiting the damage the Laois forwards might manage and constructing confidence in the trio. Of course, there are also doubts about James McCarthy – just as there always is about every championship debutant – but if he can marry effective close marking tohis pace and distribution ability, and eradicate indecision in possession, he should be fine.

Beyond that, though, it is the most settled and in-form team selection Gilroy has possibly ever been able to pick. More than that – and as he said himself this week – this is the first time he has had the luxury of leaving players, smack bang in form, on the bench. Certainly, judging by recent challenge matches, Quinn and Eoghan O'Gara are sharp right now, the latter seemingly having added some more refined strings to his unpredictable bow. David Henry, too, is liable to bring his own brand of calm assurance and productivity off the bench when introduced, and given that both of Dublin's starting wing-forwards have this week publicly acknowledged the difficulty with managing 70 minutes in the position, that's no bad thing. And it almost goes without saying that if Bernard Brogan, Alan Brogan and Diarmuid Connolly all fire and combine neatly, the potential consequences could be devastating. Also, Kevin McManamon's hard, straight-line running from centre-forward has ripped open some of the best defences in Ireland this year. Now, Laois may well produce something above and beyond what's expected. They may improve beyond all recognition from the Longford game.

Kingston and Paul Cahillane might – as in the Division 2 decider with Donegal – come from the bench and wreak havoc and the Laois midfield triangle of Begley, Quigley and O'Loughlin might produce a 70 minutes so productive, they will look back at the Longford match and laugh at how little energy any of them were able to generate. All those things might happen and if they do and Dublin underwhelm, it's not beyond the realms of possibility that Laois pull off a surprise. Dublin need less variables to fall their way, though, and should be comfortably into the semi-final by tomorrow afternoon.

ODDS: Dublin 1/5, Draw 10/1, Laois 5/1 VERDICT: Dublin

DUBLIN: S Cluxton; P McMahon, R O'Carroll, M Fitzsimons; J McCarthy, G Brennan, K Nolan; M D MacAuley, B Cahill; P Flynn, K McManamon, B Cullen, A Brogan, D Connolly, B Brogan.

LAOIS: E Culliton; C Healy, K Meaney, M Timmons; D Strong, S Julian, P O'Leary; C Begley, B Quigley; D Carroll, J O'Loughlin, N Donoher; R Munnelly, B Sheehan, MJ Tierney.