Two Dublin young guns in line for first championship start in Leinster opener
THEIR compelling spring form could see both Brian Howard and Colm Basquel earn first Championship starts in Portlaoise next Sunday as Dublin begin their Leinster SFC defence against Wicklow.
Howard, who has two brief substitutes appearances under his belt from last year’s Leinster Championship, started seven of Dublin’s eight League games this spring, scoring 0-5.
Both his prominence in Gavin’s League selections and his form therein suggest that Howard’s candidacy for a start on Sunday is strong.
In the ongoing absence of Diarmuid Connolly from the squad and Paul Flynn’s lack of game time this spring – Flynn hasn’t played for Dublin since last year’s All-Ireland final – Howard is ideally positioned to win a place in Gavin’s first XV of Championship 2018 at wing-forward.
The same goes for Basquel in Gavin’s inside line, although he may have to make do with a spot on the bench.
The Ballyboden St Enda’s man played some part in all of Dublin’s League games, starting four and coming on as a substitute in the other four, and tallied 0-15.
Most recently, Basquel began the League final on the Dublin bench but replaced Kevin McManamon at half-time and scored 0-2 in the second period of their victory over Galway.
Like Howard, Basquel was a key member of the All-Ireland-winning Dublin Under-21 team of last year but played no part in the seniors’ subsequent campaign.
Gavin’s tendency has, however, been to blood new players in the early rounds of the Championship.
Last year, in Dublin’s opener against Carlow at the same venue, Gavin threw both Con O’Callaghan and Niall Scully straight into his attack for their first starts.
O’Callaghan held his spot all through summer while Scully started every game of Dublin’s All-Ireland win, bar the final.
O’Callaghan meanwhile, is likely now to make his first inter-county start of the year on Sunday.
The reigning Young Footballer of the Year hasn’t done so for Dublin since last year’s All-Ireland final against Mayo due to his involvement with Cuala in their recent run to a second All-Ireland club hurling title in a row although he did somewhat surprisingly appear as a sub in the League final, just eight days after the hurling decider.
The only other real candidate for a Championship debut is Eoin Murchan, who made his League bow against Monaghan last month.
The Na Fianna defender - who was also on that 2017 Under-21 team - suffered a hamstring injury in his club’s recent Dublin SFC defeat to St Vincent’s and played no part in their League match against St Brigid’s in Mobhi Road on Saturday evening.
Neither did Paddy Andrews, who missed St Brigid’s recent county Championship defeat to Castleknock, although many of Gavin’s more experienced players did not line out with their clubs last weekend.
The recent return to club action of Flynn, Jack McCaffrey and Cormac Costello are a welcome boon to Gavin, although it is unlikely that he will risk any of that trio before they fully prove their match fitness.
McCaffrey is on track to hit his stated target of returning to inter-county action for the All-Ireland series and may well be involved before that after making his comeback for Clontarf on Saturday.
Costello’s return from a hamstring injury increases Gavin’s attacking options further while Flynn is likely to require further training before being plunged back into an inter-county match.
Michael Darragh Macauley, who enjoyed a hugely productive spring, is in line to start his first Championship game for Dublin since the drawn 2016 All-Ireland final after enduring an injury-riddled 2017.
In theory, Wicklow’s standing as the lowest-ranked team this year’s League provides Gavin with a window for experimentation although he has generally fielded close to full strength teams in their Championship openers, regardless of opposition.
Against Carlow last year, Gavin started 11 of the team that went on to make up his subsequent All-Ireland final XV.
"Yes, they all want to play for Dublin, but ultimately they all want Dublin and the team to do well, and that’s been their biggest strength," Gavin observed about the strength of competition for summer starting spots.
"Because we know how resilient and mentally strong that they are, and that’s come from the bond, to do their best for Dublin, no matter what they score is.
"And really that’s the mandate we’ve been given by the county board, to get the players to be their best, and if we’ve done that, on any given day, you can’t ask for anymore.
"If that brings you a victory along the way great, but once they’ve done their best, we can sit back and say we’ve done our job."
Their recent crowning as League champions for the fifth time under Gavin was the 14th major trophy they have won in his reign out of 16 attempts.
They are widely priced at 1/20 to win a Leinster championship many believe to be a foregone conclusion and favourites to make it a fourth Sam Maguire success in succession in September.
"We don’t count success, genuinely, about medals," Gavin stated.
"My drive is just to get a group of players who want to represent Dublin – they need to make that choice because there is a lot of sacrifice to be made, a lot of commitment, a lot of family events to be missed by committing to your sport.
"If you lose - once you know they have given everything, that’s all we’ve ever asked them.
"That’s what gives me the most satisfaction, walking off the pitch and reflecting on the game and going, “yeah, we did our best for them and they did their best for themselves in representing the county."
"That’s the big drive. They have been doing that consistently the last few seasons.
"Whether they can do it again this season, I don’t know.
"That will be the choice of the players to make."