Leinster on rise but Dubs only Sam hope
Leinster closed out the 2010 Allianz Football League without being represented in any of the four divisional finals, with only one county in Division 1, with Westmeath heading into Division 3 and with no fewer than eight counties booked in for the bottom two divisions this year.
They completed this year's League with five counties in the four finals, two of them -- Louth and Longford -- ending up as Division 3 and 4 champions, and Dublin and Laois running Cork and Donegal to a point each in the Division 1 and 2 finals.
Laois were promoted to Division 1, Westmeath and Louth made it to Division 2, and Longford plotted their way out of Division 4. Overall then, it was a highly progressive League for Leinster, although their reigning provincial champions were the most disappointing of all.
Meath ran an extremely poor Division 2 campaign, eventually succeeding in stepping off the trapdoor but on a seriously flawed technicality which rewards head-to-head wins over the much more equitable scoring difference, which takes all games into account as opposed to one.
Meath survived in Division 2 ahead of Sligo on the basis of the Royals' head-to-head win, but however hard they try to rationalise what happened this spring, the fact remains that they took just three of a possible 14 points -- leaving them seven points off the leaders. Not exactly the sort of campaign the Leinster champions would have expected.
If Meath were the major Leinster negative, Dublin topped the positives -- even if they did blow a glorious chance of winning their first national title for 18 years when failing to hold on to a big scoring advantage against Cork in the Division 1 final.
It was a most frustrating afternoon for Dublin but once the initial disappointment subsided, the many plus points of a well-run campaign were very much in evidence.
Dublin will have to live with the tag of being the nearly men after once again squandering an eight-point lead to lose by a point -- but they should be encouraged by the comforting thought that Cork found themselves in the very same position up to the start of last year.
However, once the Rebels made the breakthrough by winning the National League, followed by the All-Ireland title, a whole new aura developed around them.
That almost always happens when a team finally asserts itself as winners. It's as if they -- and the opposition -- begin to see themselves differently, whereas teams who are trying to break through new frontiers tend to be more easily knocked out of their routine.
Based on how they performed in the League, and indeed in the second half of last year's All-Ireland series, Dublin look nailed on certainties to win Leinster for the sixth time in seven seasons. Despite being badly hampered by injuries and suspensions, they were by far the most consistent force in this year's divisional games.
And while the circumstances of their defeat in the final were worryingly reminiscent of previous failures in big games where they were well placed to win, nobody can deny that when, in full flow, Dublin are capable of building up a powerful momentum.
They scored a total of 18-96 (a 2-13 per game average) in the League which was most impressive. And since they were without Alan Brogan and Eoghan O'Gara for much of the campaign, it underlines their attacking potency when things are going their way.
However, they continue to be undermined by defensive frailties, while they also need more options around midfield.
Granted, the defence wasn't at full strength in the League, but Dublin have long had a problem when hit by heavy storms. The likes of Cork, Kerry and Tyrone are expert at restricting the damage to manageable proportions, whereas Dublin can be all but wiped out once top opposition power up to full throttle.
Still, Pat Gilroy and his backroom team know the problem, so now it's a question of working on it before they begin their championship bid early next month. The best any county can hope for is to head into the championship in a better state than a year earlier -- and Dublin definitely are in a stronger position.
And the others? Laois are better off than a year ago; so too are Westmeath, Longford and Louth, who corrected a mid-league wobble to finish very strongly. And since they are on the easier side of the draw, they will be quite confident of at least emulating last year by returning to the final.
The draw is hugely significant this year. The four favourites -- Dublin, Kildare, Meath and Laois -- are all on the same side (it's Longford's and Wicklow's bad luck that they're there too), leaving Carlow, Louth, Wexford, Westmeath and Offaly to battle it out for the second slot in the final.
Reaching the provincial final carries an automatic guarantee of a place in the last 12 in the All-Ireland series, so that quintet has a huge incentive this term. Of the five, Carlow are the only ones who aren't good enough to exploit the opportunity which the draw presents.
The other side of the draw will be watched much more closely in terms of who might emerge to launch a real bid for All-Ireland glory. Dublin are genuine contenders, but what of Meath and Kildare?
Meath aren't anything like as bad as they looked at times in the League and, as history shows, they often expand rapidly once they hit the championship trail. It's expected that their first outing will be against Kildare, but that's assuming the Lilywhites see off Wicklow, which is by no means assured.
Mick O'Dwyer is an expert at getting things right for the championship and while there are a lot of questions about Wicklow's defensive stability, there's no doubt that they possess an attacking enterprise which is capable of troubling any defence.
It really is difficult to predict which Kildare will turn up this summer. Dreadful against Louth last year, they relaunched the season carefully and effectively and, in the end, were unlucky not to reach the All-Ireland final. Ideally, they would have built on that momentum by winning promotion to Division 1, but their League form was patchy.
With an average strike rate of just over 13 points per game, they could have no complaints about missing out on a top-two finish. Still, the recent trend has been more favourable in the championship than the League for Kildare so it's probably best not to read too much into their February-April form.
Dublin are clear favourites to win Leinster and will probably see it through to a successful conclusion. But there are enough positive aspects to several other counties to suggest that it could be a productive qualifier campaign for Leinster too.
However, in terms of winning the All-Ireland, Dublin look the only ones who are good enough to sustain the challenge to the business end of the campaign as they continue the search for Sam Maguire.