Jamesie O'Connor: While the head says Galway, I'm following my heart
Anthony Daly's men can prove their slaying of Kilkenny was no fluke.
AS the Dublin fans took to the field and the strains of "Come on ye boys in blue" reverberated around O'Moore Park in Portlaoise last Saturday evening, one couldn't help but wonder what the scenes would be like were it to happen for Dublin in today's Leinster final. In the circumstances, with all that euphoria, the fact that this team has been around the block is hugely significant, because three or four years ago, coming off such a high, they'd have been sitting ducks coming into today's game.
Elated as they were, deep down the Dublin players know there is still unfinished business. There was no silverware given out last Saturday. Experience, much of it bitter, meant no one knew that better than they did. That, and the fact that last night's fixture drew an awful lot of the media attention away from the Dubs this week, will have helped and augurs well for, at a minimum, another genuine contest this afternoon.
Although the personnel is largely the same, this team is unrecognisable from the one that hurled so poorly in the league semi-final, and especially four weeks ago in Wexford Park. The overall quality of that championship opener was terrible. Dublin started well, but the ragged shooting and steady accumulation of missed chances that allowed Wexford back into the match gradually seemed to sap their confidence and, in the end, they showed a lot of character to get out of it with a draw.
The steady improvement evident a week later has continued since and more than anything, they've gradually regained their confidence. To be fair to the Dublin management, I think they backed themselves to beat Wexford without fully showing their hand to Kilkenny. It could easily have happened too that having come so close to toppling the Cats first time out, the chains of doubt could have restrained them from really going for the jugular last weekend. That's where Anthony Daly's real value to Dublin was evident. Belief is an essential ingredient to be successful, and no one I ever played with had more confidence and belief in himself than Dalo. He successfully transmitted that to his players because they believed last weekend. They'll also believe this afternoon. The memory of how they outfought Galway in what was a massive game at the time in Tullamore two years ago will be fresh in their minds.
They all know too in the Dublin camp that if they allow today's game become an open, free-flowing shoot-out, it plays into Galway's hands. Dublin aren't equipped to win that type of contest. A war of attrition, however, and it becomes a different story. Dublin are battle-hardened, and while the sheer size of Croke Park makes it harder to play that game than in one of the county grounds, Dublin have to keep it tight, low-scoring and physical, as they did in Portlaoise. If it becomes a battle, they've shown they have the stomach, the required mental toughness for it, and after last weekend, huge momentum behind them.
While Galway answered a lot of questions in 2012, and displayed more steel than we'd become accustomed to seeing, they still came up short with the finishing line in sight. The challenge for Dublin will be surviving the initial onslaught in order to drag Galway into the trenches. Do that, and we'll have a game.
While winning primary possession in the middle third remains an ongoing concern for two or three of the other sides still harbouring genuine All-Ireland ambitions, Dublin have no problems in that department. The criticism in recent years lies with how they've used it. Their economy last weekend however, especially in the first half, was outstanding. Playing Kilkenny you have to make efficient use of the possession you win, and in that regard Dublin have made huge strides.
Dotsy O'Callaghan, in particular, was superb. His four points from play in the first half were inspirational and beside him Paul Ryan also chipped in with a couple from play. Scores still aren't coming as easily as they might for Tipp or Kilkenny in their pomp, but with David Treacy finally injury-free and gradually regaining his confidence, and Danny Sutcliffe and Conal Keaney working incredibly hard out the field, Dublin have an attacking six that's functioning as a unit, and they're now hitting the 20-point mark with consistency.
That total this afternoon might be enough, because much like the Clare team he led, defence is where the real strength of Anthony Daly's side lies. The half-back line was the rock on which Kilkenny perished last weekend. Liam Rushe was outstanding, Michael Carton has been arguably their best player over the four games, and while Stephen Hiney no longer wears the captain's armband, he remains the spiritual leader of this team. Their physical strength and ability to dominate the opposition puck-out means teams have really struggled to put them on the back foot. Equally importantly, in Peter Kelly Dublin are as well equipped as any team in the country to contain the threat of Joe Canning. Kelly has all the tools – size, pace, athleticism, aerial ability, and the capacity to recover quickly – required to contain Galway's scorer-in-chief.
The great imponderable of course is which Galway will turn up in Croke Park this afternoon? If they replicate the form which blitzed Kilkenny 12 months ago, it's very hard to see Dublin living with them. But they hurled with a fury and purpose that day borne out of the pain Kilkenny had inflicted over the years. They don't have the same beef with Dublin and, deep down, the Galway players simply won't expect to lose. In such circumstances, will or can they bring the same intensity?
Obviously, they were relatively unimpressive last time out, but Laois deserve credit for making it as difficult as they did in the semi-final. Galway's preparations were always going to be about being ready for this afternoon, but those plans were surely drawn up with Kilkenny in mind. Subconsciously, they have to feel with the events of recent weeks that the championship has opened up for them.
While doubts have been raised about the spine of the Galway defence, particularly Kevin Hynes at full-back, given his struggles with Richie Hogan in the replay last year, and the league semi-final earlier this year, that was when the team as a whole were under pressure and on the back foot, which made his life harder. For the most part, I thought he coped well. Tony óg Regan can feel hard done by, but Shane Kavanagh is a good player, and centre-back is probably his best position.
Where Galway need to find the small percentages that are likely to make the difference is further up the field. Davy Glennon had a good league, and looks to have cemented his place in attack, but too many of the Galway forwards
didn't deliver on a consistent basis last year. Consequently, the continued overdependence on Canning to do the bulk of the scoring remains a live issue.
All week long, I've oscillated about how this one is going to go. I genuinely give Dublin a great chance, but only if they keep it tight early on. Galway will look to get the goals that would blow holes in whatever momentum Dublin believe they have. If that happens, the fatigue factor kicks in and Galway could win comfortably. However, the longer the Dubs can stay in it, the greater the pressure on Anthony Cunningham's side, and the more Dublin will believe it's their day.
So who will win? Heart says Dublin. Head says Galway. But I'm a romantic at heart. The resolve and willpower the Dubs have shown over the last month has to count for something. Dublin to win.