Royals too fast out of traps for weary Wicklow -
Meath 4-11 Wicklow 2-5 O'Byrne Cup SF
It was wet and cold in Baltinglass but Meath played their way so constructively through the miserable conditions that Mick O'Dowd had every reason to be contented after watching his side book a semi-final place against DCU in Pairc Tailteann next Sunday.
DCU's win over Dublin robbed Meath of an early-season opportunity to test themselves against the All-Ireland champions and won't have best pleased the Leinster Council's financial department either since a clash between such great rivals would have boosted the attendance figures for the semi-final.
The Meath squad and management would have relished a clash with Dublin, but it wasn't to be as the students outgunned Jim Gavin's men and will offer the Royals a much stiffer test than Wicklow did yesterday.
"The Dubs in Navan would have been great, but sure DCU have plenty Dubs playing with them," said O'Dowd.
His experimental squad ticked most of the boxes against a Wicklow team that came nowhere close to replicating the enterprise which helped them to a 1-21 haul in their win over DIT on Wednesday night.
Slow from the blocks, Wicklow were 2-3 to 0-0 down after only 11 minutes, a period in which they rarely worked the ball into the Meath half.
With Graham Reilly quick and adventurous right from the off, the pressure on the Wicklow defence was so intense that it was always likely to disintegrate. And so it did.
Goals by Stephen Bray in the fifth minute and David Bray after 11 minutes set Meath on their way and they were already safely booked in for a semi-final date when they led by 2-5 to 0-2 after 20 minutes.
Wicklow manager Harry Murphy attributed some of his side's sluggishness to their tough training regime, which may have left them leg-weary.
"I was talking to Mick (O'Dowd) and he said they hadn't done any training during the week. We didn't have that luxury -- we were training away," he said.
Wicklow were way off the pace right from the start. In addition to heavily losing most of the head-to-head battles for possession all over the pitch, they were unable to curb Meath who poured forward in powerful waves once they won the ball.
The Wicklow attack got little possession but even when they did, they found the avenues towards Conor McHugh's goal securely sealed.
Wicklow's three first-half points came from half-backs Kevin Murphy, Paul McLoughlin and Dean Healy while their two third-quarter points came from subs Paddy Dalton and Anthony McLoughlin.
Another sub, James Sheerin, landed Wicklow's first goal in the 61st minute and was followed six minutes later by a goal from Seanie Furlong, the only score from play from Wicklow's six starting forwards.
Meath had 4-8 on the board at the end of the third quarter, having added two more goals from Paddy McKeever (45) and Dalton McDonagh (52). All of Meath's goals were well-worked, with ball carriers having plenty options left and right.
It was an aspect of Meath's play which pleased O'Dowd, even if he knows his forwards won't find other defences as accommodating. Meath scored 4-10 from open play with the Bray brothers and McKeever accumulating 3-5 between them.
"We got a good return from play and it could have been even more. The right option was taken with a lot of the goal chances and led to a fella tapping the ball into an empty net," said O'Dowd.
While winning the O'Byrne Cup isn't high on O'Dowd's priority list, he was always keen to prolong the pre-season campaign for as long as possible in order to gear up for the Division 2 league campaign.
"We really wanted to get at least four games in the O'Byrne Cup and we needed to win today to ensure that. We were very good in the first half -- the attitude was excellent. Our shooting wasn't great but then it was a very difficult day for kickers," he said.
Certainly, there was much to admire about Meath's ball-winning, support play and score construction, albeit against opposition who will campaign in Division 4 next month.
Like Meath, Wicklow were without several frontline players and since their talent pool is not as deep, it was always going to be difficult against the determined visitors. Still, one would have expected a tighter defensive performance but once Meath set a high tempo early on, Wicklow simply couldn't cope. "We were very flat-footed. Meath adapted better to the conditions and were much stronger and more physical," said Murphy.
"They bullied us a lot of the time. These are small steps for us -- we have a lot of work to do. Some of our defenders will be back by the time the league starts, maybe Leighton (Glynn) too. That's what we're aiming for."
O'Dowd will have at least one more game to further fine-tune his squad for the opening league clash against Galway. Indeed, if Meath reproduce yesterday's form against DCU, there's every chance that they will extend the O'Byrne Cup run to the final.
"I don't think that winning the O'Byrne Cup is where our ambitions lie, but it's good to be winning games," he said.
All the more so when it's achieved in such impressive style on a day when conditions were more suited to a relentless slog than to the flair and ambition displayed by Meath. Wicklow, meanwhile, will attempt to line up a few challenge games before they begin their league campaign against London, a task seen in a much different light after the exiles' impressive showing in last year's Connacht championship.
Yesterday's game produced no black cards as both sides adapted intelligently to the bad conditions and were careful not to draw the wrath of referee Eddie Kinsella, who did well overall.
Scorers: Meath -- D Bray (1f), P McKeever 1-2 each, S Bray 1-1, D McDonagh 1-0, G Reilly, D Lenihan 0-2 each, D Carroll, S Kenny 0-1 each. Wicklow: J Sheerin, S Furlong 1-0 each, K Murphy, P McLoughlin, D Healy, A McLoughlin (1f), P Dalton 0-1 each.
Meath -- C McHugh; C Young, S Curran, M Burke; D Dalton, E Harrington, D Tobin; C Sheridan, C Gillespie; P McKeever, D Carroll, G Reilly; D Bray, S Bray, D Lenihan. Subs: S Kenny for Tobin (h-t), D McDonagh for S Bray (h-t), P Gilsenan for Dalton (50), D Larkin for Reilly (50), B McMahon for Lenihan (55), D McQuillan for Curran (65).
Wicklow -- R Lambert; M Staines, M O'Brien, C Hyland; K Murphy, P McLoughlin, D Healy; N Gaffney, R Finn; C Murphy, J Stafford, A Merriman; D Odlum, S Furlong, P McWalter. Subs: J Manley for O'Brien (27), A McLoughlin for Odlum (h-t), J Sheerin for Merriman (h-t), P Dalton for C Murphy (h-t), P Cunningham for McWalter (46).
Ref -- E Kinsella (Laois)