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Cora Staunton: Dublin's physicality has taken ladies football to a new level

 

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16 September 2018; Dublin players, from left, Sinéad Finnegan, Amy Connolly and Niamh Collins celebrate at the final whistle of the TG4 All-Ireland Ladies Football Senior Championship Final match between Cork and Dublin at Croke Park, Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

16 September 2018; Dublin players, from left, Sinéad Finnegan, Amy Connolly and Niamh Collins celebrate at the final whistle of the TG4 All-Ireland Ladies Football Senior Championship Final match between Cork and Dublin at Croke Park, Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

16 September 2018; Dublin players, from left, Sinéad Finnegan, Amy Connolly and Niamh Collins celebrate at the final whistle of the TG4 All-Ireland Ladies Football Senior Championship Final match between Cork and Dublin at Croke Park, Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

This was a new dawn for ladies football, and not just because of the record-breaking crowd.

What Dublin displayed yesterday was the sport at a new level - it was an exhibition of exhausting, in-your-face physicality coupled with pace and counter-punching precision.

I've been around the game my whole life, and I'd never seen anything quite like this.

For that, Mick Bohan and his back-room team deserve enormous credit, though if we're to look at what allowed Dublin to defend their title, I'd pick out three things: physicality, pace and game management.

Looking down from the stands, you could see the effect the physical exert was having as early as half-time, the girls walking off the pitch were already looking shattered.

Mayo experienced it in the League final this year, finding out within the first 20 minutes that this Dublin team has raised the stakes in that department - they have big, physical players all over the pitch and they're well able to use their body.

But it's not that alone that makes them great - it's physicality with pace, and they're very well-conditioned. Pair that with superb squad depth and skill and you get a team that might not be beaten for a long time to come.

Yesterday afternoon, you could see from very early on the approach taken by the managers. They both set up defensively, and from a Dublin perspective it was clear what Mick Bohan had planned.

He's a very clever manager and knew that if he got at Cork's leaders he'd have them in trouble. With Dublin you can get at their stars but they're still a team full of leaders whereas Cork had a lot of young girls who seemed unable to step up when the likes of the O'Sullivans, Doireann and Ciara, were unable to really get a foothold in the game.

It was all down to how Dublin set up. They do a certain amount of one-on-one marking but they also set up a kind of screen across the pitch that makes it very difficult to get momentum in attack.

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Their players are very cute. If you have the ball and are about to give it to someone, they'll always impede your run, standing across you and using their body. If you have the ball and are coming forward they'll give you a little push, stuff that's in no way illegal but very effective in disrupting the pace of an attack.

They're in your face all the time, wanting to win that ball, and that's happening from Sinead Aherne all the way back. The way they defended sets a brilliant benchmark for other teams to aspire to.

And when I talk about their defence I don't mean numbers two to seven - I'm talking two to 15, with Aherne often being the only one they leave up on her own.

They play to a system, and those that don't get taken off quickly.

You could see the effect it was having on Cork. They were exhausted from all the tackles. I think once in the whole game did they kick the ball long, and bringing the ball into tackles was killing them - it was slow, lethargic and they never came out at pace.

Both teams ran the ball but the difference was Dublin had the pace and physicality to break the tackle. Cork tried the same approach, but they carried it into the tackle too many times and then Dublin hurt them on the counter-attack.

Dublin also have different players carrying the ball on consecutive plays and that rotation allows time to recover, so whoever has it is usually fresh and moving at pace. One attack it might be Noelle Healy, the next it's Nicole Owens, the next it's Lauren Magee or Olwen Carey.

When they're not counter-attacking they're patient, playing it through the lines and picking their moments - they're lethal once they finally see the space.

Ultimately it was their three goals that stuck the knife in Cork. The second was key, Carla Rowe slotting home after slick play from Healy and Carey. That gave them a four-point lead at the break, exactly what Bohan would have wanted, and then their game management saw them through to the finish.

It would have been fascinating to see how Dublin's resolve held up if Niamh Collins hadn't cleared off the line from Eimear Scally in the second half - that would have put Cork in front for the first time and changed the whole game dynamic.

As it stood, Dublin just had Cork smothered. Aherne didn't even have her best day but still racked up 1-7, a testament to her wonderful ability, while Cork's leaders - the O'Sullivans and Orla Finn - all struggled in open play. Saoirse Noonan was also unable to make any impact for them off the bench.

At the final whistle, all you could do was commend Dublin, a team that has taken the game to a new place this year.

And while it was great we got over 50,000 through the gates, I was most delighted that every one of them got a spectacle - a super game of football with all the skills on show. The sport has come an awful long way since I started playing, with 15,000 at my first final in 1999.

Long may it continue to grow.

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