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Kildare keep final focus

IT’S the All-Ireland championship, but not as we know it.

Kildare won’t care a jot about the bigger picture but their win over Meath yesterday ensured that there will be no provincial champions in either of the All-Ireland semi-finals for the first time in the competition’s history.

The provincial championships have been slowly losing their lustre ever since the GAA introduced the back door system in 2001 but that process has accelerated in dramatic circumstances this summer.

Lest we forget, the quartet of beaten provincial finalists suffered just as gravely at the hands of sides availing of a second chance the weekend before and Kildare are the poster boys for the game’s latest trend.

Beaten badly by Louth in the Leinster quarter-final, the Lilywhites profited from therapeutic meetings with Antrim, Leitrim, Derry and Monaghan and they may well ride the wave all the way to the Hogan Stand in September.

Like the two games on Saturday, this was a thrilling affair but one that fell short of classic status simply because Kildare did what Kildare do, which was hammer their opponents into submission after the break.

Kieran McGeeney’s men have finished games strongly for much of the summer and they rattled off the last half-dozen points here against a Meath side that had already suffered second-half meltdowns against Laois and Louth.

Fitness is surely an issue on both sides but, whatever the reasons, the results were clear. Meath were hassled and harried into submission in much the same manner as Tyrone had been by Dublin 24 hours earlier.

And to think that it had all looked so positive for Meath initially. Their first big break came courtesy of a bad one for Dermot Earley, whose famously dodgy knees came back to haunt him in the first minute.

The midfielder simply collapsed to the ground in agony after sending a routine kick towards the Meath area and, after some minutes receiving treatment, he was helped off to a perch in the stands.

Kildare would still break even in the engine room exchanges by the game’s end but they actually wiped the floor with Meath in that department immediately after their talisman’s departure.

Strangely, that didn’t do them much good. Meath made light of their troubles in the centre to amass a forbidding six-point lead inside 15 minutes as Kildare struggled to cope with their dangerous forwards.

Shane O’Rourke was showing brilliantly, Joe Sheridan was once again on fire, Graham Reilly chipped in with his two points and Stephen Bray was pulling the strings at centre-forward.

Amid it all, controversy threatened to engulf Meath’s day yet again, this time when Cian Ward scored a goal from the penalty spot after Brian Meade had been hauled down by Andriu MacLochlainn.

Shooting into the same Davin Stand goal where Sheridan had claimed his ‘winner’ against Louth, Ward’s shot was half-saved by Shane McCormack before spinning over the line by the slimmest of margins.

It was a goal. Just.

Kildare’s response was emphatic. John Doyle and Eoghan O’Flaherty, their two best players, got their day up and running and two more points were attached before Meath hit back.

Some of the scores were breathtaking.

An outrageous effort from distance kicked by Joe Sheridan proved to be the first of four which Meath rattled off approaching the interval but Kildare sandwiched that spree with two empathic flourishes of their own.

Meath’s defence has been fingered as a weak link all season and Kildare exposed them twice within the last eight minutes of the first-half to claim a couple of goals that undid much of their opponents’ good work up to then.

The in-form James Kavanagh claimed the first, collecting a long, quick free from Hugh Lynch before rounding Brendan Murphy and stroking home. Alan Smith’s was all but identical, emanating from a routine long ball.

Meath enjoyed their most dominant spell in midfield in the third quarter but, again, that failed to translate into points for the side with the whip hand as Kildare flooded their defensive sector time and again.

That work ethic was replicated going forward and Emmet Bolton’s 45th minute point was the apotheosis of everything they well coming as it did on the back of a superb team move that stretched the entire pitch.

The longer the game went on the worse it got for Meath who managed only one point in the first 23 minutes of the half and three all told. Kildare ploughed on relentlessly, impressively. Meath’s Seamus Kenny was sent off for a second yellow card offence with three minutes to go but Kildare were already over the horizon by then and Eoghan O’Flaherty and Doyle signed off with the last two scores.

Watch this space.

Kildare: S McCormack; B Flanagan, H McGrillen, A Mac Lochlainn; E Bolton 0-1, P Kelly, E Callaghan; D Flynn, D Earley; M O’Flaherty, P O’Neill 0-2, E O’Flaherty 0-5(2fs); J Kavanagh 1-1 (0-1f), A Smith 1-0, J Doyle 0-8(3fs).

Subs: H Lynch for Earley inj (3); M Foley for Flanagan (35+2); R Sweeney for Callaghan (46); G White for Bolton (57); D Lyons for Kelly (63)

Meath: B Murphy; C O’Connor 0-1, K Reilly, E Harrington; A Moyles, G O’Brien, C King; N Crawford, B Meade 0-1; S Kenny, S Bray, G Reilly 0-2; C Ward 1-2(1-0 pen, 0-2fs), S O’Rourke 0-2, J Sheridan 0-3.

Subs: C McGuinness for Moyles (51); J Queeney 0-1(f) for Ward (52); C Gillespie for Meade (54-57 blood)

Referee: Marty Duffy (Sligo).