Dublin's case for the defence
WHEN Paul Caffrey selected his first championship team for the Leinster quarter-final with Longford in May 2005, he chose Colin Moran and Bryan Cullen as half-forwards.
Both lasted the season up front before Cullen was restored to the defence for 2006. Now, Moran joins him in the half-back line which means, in effect, that Dublin have eight players with recent forward experience. Actually it's nine, since midfielder Shane Ryan has also played in the half line from time to time.
Ciaran Whelan, who started his career as a wing-forward in 1996, is always happier going forward than dropping back into defence so if he returns to midfield as the season progresses (or indeed as tomorrow's game progresses) Dublin will have 10 players with front line knowledge.
Left half-back Barry Cahill also likes to get forward so whatever else Dublin lacks, it's certainly not attack-minded players. That's a considerable strength but it has also proved a serious flaw.
Dublin's biggest problem for several seasons has been their inability to ride out a storm. When they're in full, cascading flow, they are the best in the country, better even than Kerry.
However, when the winds blow and the rains fall, Dublin are not as good as their country cousins at fixing the leaks quickly and effectively. Kerry gave a masterclass in the art of clever improvisation against Monaghan in last year's All-Ireland quarter-final.
They turned in a ragged performance for more than an hour but applied their instinctive survival skills so that when they finally sorted out their co-ordination difficulties they were close enough to rein in Monaghan. In all probability, Dublin would have lost that game.
Paul Caffrey has been criticised for being overly conservative in his selections and of not introducing enough new talent from year to year. Critics will point to how Brian Cody keeps churning the Kilkenny panel every year and also to Kerry, who always seem to announce a new season with at least one new arrival.
At face value, the charge against Caffrey appears fair. Ten of tomorrow's starting line-up were on the first team he sent out in 2005 and it probably would have been 12 if Paul Griffin had been around all season and Ciaran Whelan had not been suspended for the past few months.
Since Paddy Christie and Coman Goggins have retired that leaves Paul Casey as the only one dropped on the basis of performances. Actually, his omission probably has more to do with overall strategy than individual form. Casey has been a constant in Caffrey's side but now loses out to Moran, who switches from half-forward to half-back with Paul Flynn getting his chance at No 10.
Presumably, the intention is to have players who are quick onto the breaking ball -- an area where Moran excels -- while Flynn's workrate will be used to counteract Westmeath's tactic of looping players around each other to keep the move going forward.
Casey's demotion has been portrayed as a sign that Caffrey is ready to gamble in what may be his final season in charge. That, of course, presupposes that he wasn't willing to take a chance in previous years, opting instead to remain loyal to the players who dominated Leinster but came up short on bigger days.
There were no shortage of Caffrey critics who claimed that he wasn't sufficiently adventurous, yet few were prepared to name the players who were good enough to be on the panel but who somehow fell victim to the manager's innate conservatism.
Could it be that they simply weren't -- or aren't -- there? It's hardly a case of Caffrey and Co overlooking a whole range of tigerish defenders who would insert real steel into the back line.
The defence has been Dublin's biggest problem for a long time. A look at their concession score on the days they exited the championship proves that. It was 1-15 (v Kerry) last year, 1-16 (v Mayo) in 2006, 2-18 (v Tyrone) in 2005 and 1-15 (v Kerry) in 2004.
Those totals are simply too high, which is why Dublin's All-Ireland prospects this year hinge on reducing them.
Dublin may come lucky because with the exception of Kerry, standards generally have been dropping and now there's even a doubt about the Kingdom's stability as they face a summer without Paul Galvin.
For all that, Dublin know that they have to tighten the defence, starting tomorrow where Dessie Dolan, Denis Glennon and Co are well capable of asking serious questions.
When Dublin last won the All-Ireland final in 1995, they had some real warhorses in defence.
Paddy Moran, Keith Barr and Paul Curran were genuinely hard men who imposed themselves forcibly, just as Tommy Drumm, Gerry Hargan and Mick Holden were in 1983. As for the Dublin defence of the 1970s, they didn't come much more resolute than Gay O'Driscoll, Sean Doherty, Robbie Kelleher, Tommy Drumm, Kevin Moran and Pat O'Neill.
The current crop is far more sedate. Indeed, Mick O'Dwyer, a man with layers of experience on how to set up a defence, believes the Dublin backs have been the main source of the team's problems.
"As a unit, they're poor at man-marking. They're so attack-minded that when they start to go forward they seem to forget about their opponents. The amount of space they give opposition forwards in amazing.
"I'm not saying that backs should concentrate solely on defence but they must regard it as the first priority, not just when the opposition is coming at them but when play is at the other end of the field.
"The Dublin defence has been poor on positioning and is far too easily wrong-footed, mentally and physically, by smart forwards," he wrote last year.
Stephen O'Shaughnessy for Paul Griffin and Moran for Casey are the two changes Caffrey has made in defence from the team which lost to Kerry in last year's All-Ireland semi-final. Neither Moran nor O'Shaughnessy is new so if Dublin are to tighten the defensive locks it will have to come as a result of a fresh tactical approach.
The first inkling of how they are approaching it will come tomorrow.
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