Monday 22 January 2018

Peter Canavan: Lilies starting to bloom but Dubs date too soon for them

Cian O'Neill's improving side have the tools to ask some hard questions of champions

Cian O’Neill and Kildare may well look to Neil Flynn if they are to take a direct approach to tackling Dublin. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach / Sportsfile
Cian O’Neill and Kildare may well look to Neil Flynn if they are to take a direct approach to tackling Dublin. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach / Sportsfile

Peter Canavan

Cian O'Neill will have watched the varying experiences of Westmeath against Dublin over the last three seasons and taken note.

In years one and two, they went for respectability. They poured bodies back and plugged the gaps. It wasn't their natural game but it at least kept them in the hunt until half-time. In 2015 they were just four points down at the break. A year later, they trailed by just a point at half-time but lost by 15. They could at least say that they had lived with Dublin for a half.

That was no mean feat considering Westmeath had slipped into the basement division and Dublin were in the midst of a two-year unbeaten run.  

A few weeks ago they changed it up and looked to take on Dublin. It went badly wrong and Dublin won by their biggest margin under Jim Gavin (29 points) since having 27 to spare over Longford two years earlier.

And that's what will have been on O'Neill's mind for the past few weeks. The Meath game was wonderfully open and it suited them. But it just can't be that way this weekend.

Kildare will have to strike the balance between defence and attack and at the same time play to their strengths. One of their strongest areas is midfield and they'll need to get after Stephen Cluxton's kick-outs. It's easier said than done but they can't let him chip them out to his corner-backs for cheap possession. They have to make him go long as often as possible and hope their ball-winners, Kevin Feely and Tommy Moolick, can do enough from there.

Teams are understandably reluctant to do that because if Dublin win that kick-out, then there's an open road to your goal and they don't generally need second chances. It's a risk but it's one I'd be taking if I was O'Neill.


Kildare have some big men in their full-forward line. Daniel Flynn and Paddy Brophy were very good against Meath and they'll have a height advantage against the likes of Jonny Cooper and Mick Fitzsimons. The return to fitness of Philly McMahon is a boost but I still expect to see Kildare go long a few times early in the first half just to see how they get on.

They have other threats too. Niall Kelly was quiet by his standards in that Meath game but he is a fine footballer. I'd like to see him play close to the full-forward to both occupy Cian O'Sullivan, who picks up so much loose ball unchallenged in his role in front of his full-back line, and pick up some scraps.

O'Neill has options on the bench too. Eamonn Callaghan is an experienced operator and I really like Neil Flynn as a footballer. He only came on very late in the day against Meath but if he is fully fit, he is a great option to have as he is very direct.

Of course any tactic employed is only as good as the intensity with which it is applied. Contrast the approaches of underdogs Down against Monaghan and Westmeath's attitude versus Dublin.

Down bristled with intent and snapped into tackles. Whatever else happened that day they were going down swinging. Apart from the opening quarter, Westmeath looked like they'd accepted their fate. Kildare will have to be more like Down were and play with a crazed intensity.

There has been a lot of analysis of Dublin. After the Carlow game, some said they were a little off colour. After Westmeath, the line was that they were back to their brilliant best. As ever, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Judging by the impact their subs made against Westmeath (the bench contributed 2-5 which surpassed Westmeath's tally of 0-10), I would say their in-house training games are the place where they find out most about themselves.

Still they'll get a good test on Sunday, the best they have got in Leinster in a while. The performances of Meath since they lost to Kildare suggest they are not as bad as they looked in Tullamore and that is a boost to O'Neill's men.

However, the experience of Galway in the Connacht final suggests that even if you get relegated, as Roscommon were, time in Division 1 is worth so much when it comes to championship games. So I think this game has come a year too early for Kildare. A season in the top flight will bring them on no end.

I still think they'll ask Dublin some hard questions. They'll get a game at they very least, something that has been missing all too often in Leinster in recent years. However, you're still looking at seven in a row for Dublin.

No sign of GAA core wilting in Big Apple

Last weekend I had the privilege of being invited out to Rockland GAA to mark the opening of their excellent new facilities in New York.

The GAA is alive and well out there. Rockland were the first GAA club outside of Ireland and Britain to own their own ground and last weekend they took another step forward when opening a state-of the-art clubhouse.

They invited myself and several others out to play an exhibition to help mark the occasion.

An Ulster-Leinster selection, managed by Brian Mullins and including the likes of Graham Geraghty, Oisín McConville and Paddy Bradley, took on a Munster-Connacht selection.

Billy Morgan was in charge of them and could put Seán óg ó hAilpín, Tomás ó Sé and others on the field. It was great craic, with Mattie Forde heading a goal to make sure the game ended in a draw.

There was a serious side to it too. They are keen for the GAA to progress out there and want the New York minors to become a permanent fixture in the Connacht Championship.

Judging by how good their Feile team were when winning Division 1, that doesn't seem like such a fanciful idea.



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