Macauley the perfect midfield partner – O'Sullivan
MONAGHAN will do all they can to knock the 'Rock boys out of their stride in the Dublin midfield at Croke Park tonight, but Cian O'Sullivan and Michael Darragh Macauley are up for the challenge.
The two alumni of famed rugby nursery Blackrock College have formed a potent partnership around the centre of the pitch for Dublin, who face arguably their toughest championship opposition of the campaign.
Allowing for any late changes, O'Sullivan and Macauley's direct opposition will be the battle-hardened Dick Clerkin and Darren Hughes as both sides seek entry to the All-Ireland semi-finals.
The role of midfielders has changed in the modern game, but there's still a contest of wits and physicality to be faced around the central areas of the pitch.
It's interesting to speculate that if Macauley and O'Sullivan had continued with their original sporting preferences – basketball for Macauley, athletics for O'Sullivan – Croke Park would not have provided the setting for the duo to display their skills.
Rugby, despite their schooling at 'Rock, and the presence of the oval ball game on Dublin's southside, didn't feature highly on the priorities of the pair, and Dublin fans can be thankful they took so readily to Gaelic games.
Their presence in the team is also a tribute to the work carried out by the prominent south Dublin GAA strongholds of Kilmacud Crokes (O'Sullivan) and Ballyboden St Enda's (Macauley). As midfielders go, these guys offer Jim Gavin's All-Ireland champions a potent blend of talents and abilities.
O'Sullivan's versatility – he can operate comfortably in the half-back or full-back line if required as well as midfield – allows him to hold space while Macauley sets off on those hard-driving adventures around the pitch.
They work well together, although, when O'Sullivan was asked about the midfield partnership with Macauley, he joked: "It's very hard to figure out what that guy does, he's the least predictable man."
On a serious note, he continued: "I'd have a good relationship with Michael, on and off the field, and there's a good understanding there. I can't think of anyone you'd rather line out in midfield with.
"He's a fantastic player with fantastic heart and a fantastic engine, so it's a source of comfort having him there alongside you in midfield."
O'Sullivan and Macauley were originally brought into the Dublin squad under Pat Gilroy's management and went on to feature prominently in the All-Ireland wins of 2011 and 2013.
For the Kilmacud Crokes man, the range of options he brings to the team could have worked against him, but classy and pacey O'Sullivan takes it all in his stride, literally and metaphorically.
"For me, I'm happy to play whatever position I'm put in on the pitch. I suppose if you were to ask me what my preferred position would be, it would be midfield or wing-back.
"I've played wing-back, centre-back, full-back, and midfield over the last couple of years.
"I've kind of been put into those positions because there's been a gap there at times, maybe guys injured or whatever. It's just kind of happened that way, really. I'm in midfield at the moment and I'm enjoying it and it's going well," he said.
Depending on how the game ebbs and flows, O'Sullivan can be moved into the half-back line, with Denis Bastick a reliable replacement most likely to come on at midfield.
It's not a problem for the Kilmacud Crokes player. "I suppose the way the game has gone in the last couple of years, it's more of a middle-third rather than just a midfield position.
"Any of those positions are easily interchangeable, so I wouldn't say it's that difficult trying to switch to half-back from playing midfield.
"There's a lot of similarities there. You just probably have more of a defensive role at half-back. You just have to look after your man first before you do anything else," he said.
Earlier in the season, former Dublin midfielder Ciaran Whelan rated Monaghan as a good outside bet as All-Ireland challengers.
He may have revised that opinion somewhat after their failure to retain the Ulster title, but the Farney men are in Croke Park and have nothing to lose.
Everyone expects the Dubs to win, so there's a sense of freedom for Monaghan. O'Sullivan will take it as it comes.
"I honestly don't know what Monaghan are going to try and do. All we can do is take a look at their last couple of games and see how they set themselves up and just be mindful of that.
"We've come through three tough games, and put up good scores and things are going well.
"But you've seen in the past, teams trying to retain All-Irelands and they've been playing well, and then all of a sudden at the quarter-final or semi-final stage they're dumped out of the championship, so you just never know what's around the corner.
"Jim's fond of using the expression 'there's no guarantees in sport' and that's definitely something you have to be aware of.
"Whether it's that lads have picked up cruciate ligament injuries during the year and knee injuries, or whether it's something in matches, there are no guarantees, so all we can do is prepare as best as we possibly can.
"We're comfortable that preparations are going well.
"We'd be confident that we've done everything in our power, that we've controlled everything in our power to be ready," he said.