This evening in Portlaoise, we get the first indications if Dublin have ironed out their spring creases - or if there is genuine hope for the chasing pack
The Dubs are back in town, and for the first time in a few seasons, there is a curiosity
factor around the All-Ireland champions. They had a very different league this year, the first time under Jim Gavin they didn’t reach the final. Yes they finished fourth in 2014 but as the league semi-finals were still in existence they remained involved, going on to win the final against Derry.
Coincidentally 2014 was the only year they haven’t annexed Sam Maguire under his stewardship. The ruthless consistency of performance that has been their hallmark under Gavin was noticeably absent during this League. There was a clear malaise there and I, for one, will be very interested to see if this has been eradicated in the interlude — or if there is genuine hope for the chasing pack. They still scored freely but definitely conceded more than they would have liked. I imagine remedial action will have been taken in the meantime, both systematically and personnel wise. Also, positively for Dublin, Evan Comerford’s development accelerated with consistent game time and he is a live championship option now if any misfortune were to befall Stephen Cluxton.
Talk of them taking it easy before a big drive for the summer is simply not the way they function or think. I
expect the real Dublin will be to the fore straight away and they will annihilate Louth as predicted. However, there are several conundrums to keep us interested. Will Rory O’Carroll make the squad? I will be amazed if he can slot in as easily as that after being out of the game at this level for three seasons.
Who partners Brian Fenton in the middle? Where is James McCarthy going to play? What of Diarmuid Connolly? Is the manic work rate from their forwards, so manifest, indeed fundamental, over the last few seasons (but absent during the league) going to be present and correct? What tweaks are they going to implement this summer as they constantly look to innovate and improve?
The competitiveness of the provincial championships, particularly in Munster and Leinster, is a source of much discourse.
The perennial plethora of proposals (some more worthy than others) in relation to reforming the championship are making the rounds, but as we are in Year Two of a three-year trial they are largely irrelevant. In both provinces, Dublin and Kerry are expected to stroll to their respective titles without breaking sweat. Sport is rarely as simple and straightforward as that, even if some of the most recent provincial championships might indicate so.
As recently as last Sunday, with Brooks Koepka in control and expecting a Sunday stroll in the final round of the US PGA Championship, we saw how quickly everything can change and suddenly all the wise men can be left looking for cover.
Many may wonder what value, if any, the Leinster Championship holds for Dublin. It is of immense value to them. Dublin played their last competitive game in March, nine long weeks ago. Players and management live for matches.
Performing in competition is what it’s all about and there is a different feel and buzz about championship. The shadow boxing is over and things start to take shape for the summer. When I played some of the early championships games were to be endured rather than enjoyed. Get in, get out and get the job done. So much goes into individual and squad preparation at present that the games are a real reward and are approached accordingly. It is a much healthier and more enjoyable outlook. In general, teams — and this Dublin squad in particular — have been excellent at living in the moment and taking it game by game.
With a squad as deep as Dublin’s, I imagine many players are wondering where they stand. I would also think Gavin is keeping them guessing to make sure his training sessions are at his desired intensity. Who starts? Who comes on? Who is unused?
Who is injured and worst of all who doesn’t even make the match day squad? After this weekend, the group will know exactly where they stand in the here and now. That brings an edge to proceedings for training when they begin their preparations for the semi-final next week.
Generally, this is the best time of the season for a new player to establish, or a veteran to re-establish, their championship credentials as the teams and squads tend to settle as the summer progresses. Often times, possession of a jersey can be nine-tenths of the law.
Dublin have developed year-on-year under Jim Gavin. These innovative tweaks have kept them ahead of the curve. They have moved more towards a possession-based model with sounder defensive principles. I feel part of the development has been management-based but part has been down to changing personnel. Paul Flynn and Diarmuid Connolly were kicking half forwards. They liked to look for the inside line early and often.
Flynn had a particularly effective understanding with Bernard Brogan and both of them thrived off the 10-to-15 delivery. As their importance has receded and players like Ciarán Kilkenny, Brian Howard and Niall Scully have established themselves in the half-forward line, they tend to run and handpass the ball more.
They play front foot football and exhaust teams with the amount of possession, putting very little up for grabs while ruthlessly playing the percentages. It means that the opposition have less energy when in possession and are more likely to make mistakes, often giving the ball straight back to Dublin through errors, both forced and unforced.
This is why it is essential to execute your own kickout strategy effectively and disrupt Stephen Cluxton.
Easier said than done I know. Tonight’s game against Louth in Portlaoise gives context to and informs training for the next two weeks. From a coaching perspective Dublin will have been working away on areas of their game since the league. Undoubtedly they will have a few new tricks up their sleeve and watch out for a set play or two that will have been rehearsed ad naseum — most likely on their own kickout or on a free kick in the middle part of the field..
Some things will go well but regardless of how impressive the performance, there will always be room for improvement. Gavin will be busy at video analysis on Sunday to identify the focus for training for the next two weeks in the lead in to their semi-final.
Last year we comfortably beat Cork in the Munster final but when we reviewed the game, there was huge scope for improvement and plenty to work on in training. For example, we conceded two poor goals and our finishers that came in off the bench did not have the kind of impact we expect. The following week we were working on these areas. This process is one of the most enjoyable parts of being involved in an ambitious team in championship football.
Finally, it is not only Dublin who benefit from tonight’s game. While we are all expecting a facile win, from a viewing perspective, a scouting trip by other managers, even to to one of these
cakewalks, can often be hugely informative. There is no such thing as a wasted trip and any time I travelled to a game I always learned something new or had some kind of a mad notion, good or bad. Most of the Leinster quarter-final will be played on Dublin terms so the areas they have been working on and the patterns of play they’re trying to implement will be evident. This can be of huge value down the line if you get to cross swords with them.
In last year’s Leinster final, Dublin beat Laois by 18 points in what was their eighth provincial title in a row. Did it mean much to them? You bet it did. To this Dublin team, winning silverware, including provincial championship matters.
It is the only thing.