Monday 9 December 2019

Dublin no longer fear Kilkenny and have enough maturity and leadership to sneak tactical battle

Aware of the perils of tipping against the Cats, Jamesie O'Connor still believes Dublin can do it

Jamesie O'Connor

Kilkenny travelled to Parnell Park in the penultimate round of the league in March. Playing with a gale, Dublin dominated the first half and were 10 points clear at the break, a lead that looked enough to get them home. Two Kilkenny goals inside 10 minutes blew that presumption away, and with the deficit reduced to a solitary score, it was looking familiarly ominous. With time on their side, the elements in their favour and crucially all the momentum behind them, an away victory seemed inevitable. That it didn't happen, or rather wasn't allowed to, says a lot more about Dublin and how far this team has come than anything that might be read into Kilkenny.

The leaders in the team stepped up - Peter Kelly at full-back, Liam Rushe and Michael Carton in the half-back line, Ryan O'Dwyer and Danny Sutcliffe, who was immense and finished with 1-5 in the half-forwards - and they ground out the result. The manner of the performance, and the character required to produce it, made it a hugely satisfying win, and the type of game Dublin couldn't and wouldn't have won without the success and big-game experience accumulated over the last five years.

That game was also further evidence of how their relationship with Brian Cody's side has evolved under Anthony Daly's stewardship. It has taken time, and some harsh lessons, but Dublin no longer fear Kilkenny.

Going back to last year's Leinster championship semi-final, most of us made the assumption that having outhurled their opponents for most of the match, TJ Reid's 73rd-minute equaliser meant Dublin had let a glorious opportunity slip. Yet, if anything, it served to strengthen their resolve to finish the job on the following Saturday. They believed they had Kilkenny's number, hurled accordingly and were full value for the win.

For all that, Dublin still probably believe that Kilkenny don't respect them. And you can be sure that's something that's got plenty of air-time in their dressing room in the build-up to today. Teams will use any crutch they can to get an edge, and enough pain has been inflicted over the years by Kilkenny to ensure the Dubs will be driven to derail this year's resurgence.

That they've been idle for the last three weeks, during which time Kilkenny have had two tough contests with Galway, shouldn't unduly worry Anthony Daly. The 11-week gap from the league to their championship opener with Wexford would have been a bigger concern. They hit the ground running that night, which was impressive. It was always going to be a tricky assignment, especially down in Wexford Park, and without Sutcliffe, David Treacy and Gary Maguire. Liam Rushe had also been troubled with a hamstring injury, they lost Mark Schutte early on and with Wexford ahead and Conor McDonald having Peter Kelly in all sorts of trouble in the opening quarter, it was by no means a straightforward task.

Credit so to the Dublin management, and the calmness they and their players exuded. There was no panic. Paul Schutte was redeployed to curb McDonald, and Conal Keaney stormed into the match.

Tactically, too, Dublin got their match-ups right and that's something that's becoming increasingly important in deciding big championship matches. A perfect illustration of that was the curveball they threw by playing Alan McCrabbe at centre-forward. Liam Dunne would have wanted his number six Andrew Shore to anchor the middle, and Shore would have spent the week bracing himself for Ryan O'Dwyer and a conventional physical contest. What he got on the night was a more mobile and skilful opponent who drifted all over the field and lost him at will. McCrabbe may have certain flaws in his game, but he is a shooter, and an accurate one at that. He's also full of running and fitter than I've ever seen him. Given space, he will punish you.

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What adds to the intrigue of today's game is the element of cat and mouse between the respective managers and how they deploy their resources. I thought it was a very brave selection on Brian Cody's part last weekend - Pádraig Walsh at centre-forward, Conor Fogarty at midfield, Joey Holden in the half-back line - but he was proven right in almost every instance. Cody has been superb over the years at identifying weaknesses in the opposition and going after them. It didn't escape his notice that Richie Power had exposed Ronan Burke's lack of pace early on in the drawn match. It might have only been one little cameo, but it enabled Cody identify an area that might yield a dividend, and hence the selection of Taggy Fogarty, rather than Walter Walsh or Eoin Larkin, at full-forward.

The other decision of note was the inclusion at centre-back of Brian Hogan, who rewarded his manager with an outstanding performance. However, Galway played to Hogan's strengths, and his pace and mobility were never really tested. Will McCrabbe start on him today, and if so how will Kilkenny respond? Similarly, both JJ Delaney and Jackie Tyrrell were excellent in Tullamore, and in no way discomfited, given how one-dimensional Galway's approach was.

However, there's no escaping the reality that as great and all as these players have been, they have to be a yard slower than they were five years ago, and in the wider spaces of Croke Park, Dublin will try to run them off the field.

How to curb the influence of both TJ Reid and Richie Hogan, Kilkenny's outstanding performers this year, is something the Dublin backroom team will have thought long and hard about. Galway paid the price for not getting an experienced defender on Reid last weekend. Dublin are unlikely to make the same mistake.

Over the years, the problem with stopping Kilkenny was invariably the ability of different players to step up and produce match-winning performances on different days. Yet, with no Richie Power or Michael Rice, Henry Shefflin short of match fitness, and doubts over Michael Fennelly, Dublin don't have as much to fear from the Kilkenny attack as would have been the case a couple of years ago.

Nonetheless, Kilkenny are Kilkenny. Three weeks ago, I felt Dublin had a great chance. Now, on the evidence of the last fortnight, and seeing Kilkenny play, I'm not so sure. Questions also remain about the readiness of both Sutcliffe and Ryan O'Dwyer, and being shorn of either of them would grievously hurt Dublin's chances.

Tipping against Kilkenny can make you look very foolish, and the evidence of the league and what they have produced in the championship to date makes a compelling case for favouring them. Yet, I'm expecting a massive performance from Dublin. They have the physicality, the fitness and, most importantly, the leadership and maturity, to pull it off. Applying that logic, I have a sneaking fancy they'll do it.

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