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Meath attack unmatchable

A LEINSTER final that no one -- literally no one -- could have predicted last May will bring out the crowds and evoke memories of the good old days in Croke Park tomorrow.

Louth versus Meath -- bet you didn't see that one coming, did you?

The Royals' progress to a first provincial final in nine years qualifies more as a mild surprise than a shock, whereas Louth have bucked the odds, history and even their own meandering early-season form to get this far.

The end result is a first Leinster final in 50 years, and the chance to claim the Delaney Cup for the first time since the All-Ireland year of 1957. So far, so wonderful for the born-again Wee wonders but even Peter Fitzpatrick, one of life's great optimists, must recognise that this is the greatest challenge yet faced by his emerging team.

Thus far, Louth have struggled past Longford, shot the lights out against Kildare and then dug out victory in the face of a late Westmeath rally. But they have yet to face a team playing with the burgeoning self-belief and attacking firepower of Meath.

Based on what we have seen this summer, Louth's conversion rate will have to come close to the aforementioned tour de force against Kildare (when they shot a jaw-dropping 1-22 and just three wides). Their defence may also have to find a higher level, given that they've leaked 1-16 (against Kildare) and 2-10 (against Westmeath) and now face a far more potent attacking force.

A step too far for Louth, then? The likely answer is yes, but there are several reasons why even the rejuvenated Royals must approach this fixture with caution.

Firstly, playing in a Leinster final is not just a whole new experience for Louth -- Nigel Crawford is the only starting survivor from Meath's last provincial decider against Dublin in 2001. So while there is a risk that Louth players will freeze when the magnitude of the occasion hits them, a few Meath legs might also buckle.

Secondly, Louth will spy hope in the midfield heroics of Paddy Keenan and Brian White who, between them, have garnered three consecutive Man of the Match awards while also chipping in with vital scores -- White has tallied 0-13 (11f) in their three outings, Keenan 0-5 from play.

By comparison, Meath have been in a state of midfield flux. This is largely because of Crawford's ill-timed back injury: having excelled in the opening round against Offaly, he missed both Laois games and was confined to a 25-minute cameo off the bench against Dublin.

Now, though, the Meath skipper is fit enough to start and this could prove critical in tilting the centrefield balance away from Louth -- or at least curtailing the influence of Keenan and White.

It's instructive that whereas Meath began the summer with a midfield axis of Crawford and Mark Ward, the latter has now been displaced by Brian Meade. Just as revealing is the extent of their struggle to secure kickout possession against Dublin: they were essentially wiped during the third quarter as Eamon Fennell came into his own, prompting Eamonn O'Brien to usher Crawford into action.

And yet, for all that, Meath won that second half by 11 points. How could this happen? Simple: a com-bination of Dublin's hara-kiri defending, some rank bad refereeing calls -- and Meath's goal-hungry attack.

On closer inspection, they won that second half by 4-4 to 0-5. The quality of the finishing was both clinical and swashbuckling.

Meath's most obvious advantage tomorrow is the depth of their scoring artillery. Marauding wing-forward Graham Reilly tallied 1-8 from play in the two Laois games, but this unheralded newcomer then had a relatively subdued game in the semi-final. No reason to worry, though, because the previously off-form Stephen Bray delivered a thrilling reminder of his 2007 All Star pedigree.

It gets even better when you consider Shane O'Rourke's notable contribution in his comeback season; how Cian Ward had delivered beguiling flashes of brilliance in most games; how Joe Sheridan has consistently led from the front ... and how the only 'non-scorer' in that Meath attack, Seamus Kenny, played such an important role against Dublin, winning carpet ball and using it wisely.

It must also be factored in that Meath's supposed Achilles heel, their defence, has grown in stature over the past four games, from very uncertain beginnings against Offaly. Eoghan Harrington is a case in point: he was distinctly ropey against the Faithful but delivered a corner-back masterclass against the Dubs.

Given all the above, it's perhaps easy to see why Meath are 2/9 favourites with the bookies. The experience gained in 2007 and again last year -- when they reached All- Ireland semi-finals via the scenic route -- cannot be discounted either.

For all that, Louth will derive hope from their own impressive momentum, from the boundless positivity that Fitzpatrick has imbued in his panel, from their strong midfield and the standout quality of their target man, Shane Lennon.

If the breaks go their way and they don't succumb to nerves, these gung-ho underdogs could push Meath all the way ... but ultimately, you can't look beyond those deadly Royal assassins.

ODDS: Meath 2/9, Draw 10/1, Louth 4/1


MEATH: B Murphy; C O'Connor, K Reilly, E Harrington; A Moyles, G O'Brien, C King; B Meade, N Crawford; S Kenny, J Sheridan, G Reilly; C Ward, S O'Rourke, S Bray.

LOUTH: N Gallagher; E McAuley, D Finnegan, R Greene; R Finnegan, M Fanning, J O'Brien; P Keenan, B White; A McDonnell, M Brennan, A Reid; C Judge, S Lennon, JP Rooney.