Martin Breheny: Proud Royals will never throw in the towel – but Sky Blues look home and dry
ON all available evidence, the case for Dublin is overwhelming. They are playing much better than last year, when the responsibility of being All-Ireland champions appeared to inhibit rather inspire them.
Now, they arrive in the Leinster final as league champions after a progressively efficient season that shows a return of nine wins, one draw (v Donegal) and one defeat (v Tyrone) from 11 competitive games.
Meath's record of seven wins and three defeats looks solid enough, but all except one of their opponents were Division 3 teams, while the remaining one (Wexford) will be in the third tier next season.
No Division 1 team has lost to lower-ranked opposition so far in the provincial championship, so it's asking a lot of Meath to bridge what was effectively a 17-place divide to Dublin in the league.
In theory, last year's Leinster final offers Meath some encouragement, having ended in a three-point win for Dublin but, in reality, the result flattered the Royals, who trailed by nine points on the hour mark. Dublin appeared to suffer a serious lapse in concentration on the run-in and were stressed in the final minutes after conceding 1-3 but, prior to then, they were a much superior side.
Of course, Meath would argue that only for a catastrophic power failure just before half-time, when they conceded goals to Bernard Brogan and Denis Bastick, the balance of the game would have been very different.
Still, all that's a year ago and this is a whole new scenario. Both sides have first-season managers, with Jim Gavin building an expansive empire with Dublin from a high starting base, while Mick O'Dowd is trying to stabilise Meath after their brief dip into Division 3.
He has one significant advantage over most managers in Leinster as Meath players always fancy themselves as Dublin's equals, whereas some others appear to be intimidated by the Blues in Croke Park. Equally, Dublin players have a wariness of Meath that doesn't extend elsewhere in Leinster. Of course, Dublin's caution is well-founded as Meath have enjoyed various spells of dominance over them down through the years.
Even when Meath have not been motoring especially well they have been capable of producing a one-off surge against their great rivals, as proved three years ago when they hit Dublin for 5-9 in the Leinster semi-final.
The massive challenge facing Meath tomorrow is how to restrict Dublin's pace and precision, a combination that hit Westmeath and Kildare for a combined total of 5-38, with only 1-18 coming back in response.
Kildare and Westmeath operated at a higher level than Meath in the league, yet didn't come remotely close to figuring out how to curtail Dublin.
Even when Kildare took their early breaks to open up a five-point lead, Dublin's response was measured and utterly ruthless. They won the remainder of the game by 4-16 to 0-7.
If Meath are to give themselves any chance of defending more efficiently than Westmeath and Kildare did, they will have to pack the channels, because Dublin's quick, incisive attack will prosper unless they get caught up in frustrating traffic jams.
Meath will also need to guard against the attacking thrusts from wing-backs Jack McCaffrey and James McCarthy, who provide an added threat from a variety of angles.
Mind you, one of them will have strict defensive duties against Graham Reilly, who has been in excellent form. He scored 0-4 from play against both Wicklow and Wexford but needs more support if Dublin are to be really tested for defensive frailties.
Nine of Meath's 18 points against Wexford came from frees converted by Michael Newman, but it's unlikely that the Dublin defence will be under such an intense level of pressure that their discipline collapses.
Ominously for Meath, Gavin said during the week that he believed Dublin still hadn't reached their full potential, which is quite a statement coming after successive 16-point wins.
"There are a lot of areas for improvement. We are always looking at ways to get consistency, and over the 70 minutes against Kildare that wasn't there," said Gavin.
If an inconsistent performance can yield 4-16, one wonders what target Gavin has in mind for a really good day. In fairness to Meath, it's highly unlikely they would capitulate as easily as Kildare did if the game began drifting away from them.
"As a Meath footballer, it's bred into us to keep going, keep challenging and keep fighting to the end," said full-back Kevin Reilly.
It's a quality which will make Dublin's task more difficult than results this year suggest. However, it's most unlikely to sustain the Royals for the full 70 minutes. It all points to Dublin winning their second Leinster three-in-a-row in seven seasons.
Dublin – S Cluxton; D Daly, R O'Carroll, J Cooper; J McCarthy, G Brennan, J McCaffrey; MD Macauley, C O'Sullivan; P Flynn, C Kilkenny, D Connolly; P Mannion, P Andrews, B Brogan.
Meath – P O'Rourke; D Keogan, K Reilly, B Menton; P Harnan, M Burke, S Kenny; B Meade, C Gillespie; P Byrne, D Carroll, G Reilly; E Wallace, S Bray, M Newman.