Ciarán Kilkenny, Dean Rock and Diarmuid Connolly have managed to take their respective games to an even higher level so far this year, writes Peter McNamara.
Following Dublin closely this season under the assumption they will ‘break ranks’ and land back-to-back All-Ireland SFC titles, it is striking how exceptional those three players have been in 2016.
In fact, if there was a three-man short-list right now for the GAA/GPA Footballer of the Year award, you would be hard pressed to argue against the trio being on that list.
Outside of that bracket, Cian O’Sullivan and James McCarthy would be fourth and fifth respectively, two outstanding play-developers.
At present, though, Kilkenny and Rock would be pencilled in as the first and second-most effective operators for the best team in the land.
While Connolly performed majestically in Nowlan Park last Saturday night in Dublin’s 11-point victory over Laois and was selected as the Sky Sports Man of the Match, Kilkenny and Rock have been particularly sensational all year long.
From the All-Ireland quarter-final onwards last year, the Castleknock man showed glimpses of the ridiculously high standards he is consistently reaching this term.
You could see that, finally free of the shackles of injuries, Kilkenny’s game went from third to fourth gear.
Currently, he is cruising along in fifth gear to the top individual award.
Each of the four points he pilfered against Laois were sublimely executed and you have to wonder if any of the Metropolitans’ would-be opponents can stop the virtually unstoppable juggernaut he has evolved into these last 10 months.
People say upsetting Stephen Cluxton’s kick-outs is the key to unlocking Dublin, but the reality is that no team has truly managed to put that theory into practice.
Cluxton’s ability to locate a man in Dublin blue from an extremely high percentage of their restarts regardless of the attempts of their opponents to counteract them leads us to encourage less focus on that element of their arsenal.
Essentially, Cluxton will find one of his players no matter what any side does to minimise his impact.
Therefore, opponents need to realign their thought-process on how to deny Dublin simplistic passages through to the latter stages of competitions by shifting their attentions to curtailing Kilkenny, for instance.
It really has got to the point in 2016 where you would be withdrawing a massive amount of Dublin’s oxygen by cancelling Kilkenny out.
The 22-year-old is a force of nature presently and is a primary reason that Jim Gavin’s team can transfer definitive possession from their half-back line and midfield into their half-forward line.
Kilkenny’s positional sense is such that he manages to find pockets of vital space even among the traffic-filled middle-third.
He drifts into wide areas and gains possession from the likes of O’Sullivan and McCarthy powering forward providing the perfect foil for those attackers around and ahead of him.
His awe-inspiring balance also decrees that it is extremely difficult for defenders to contain him as he is technically proficient with both feet.
Man-marking him may be the only option for Dublin’s opponents from here forward.
By literally staying on his heels you might be able to erode at least some of his qualities.
Of course, that is not guaranteed either as he is such a magnificent player that Kilkenny could wriggle free from a straitjacket.
Yet, it might be a means of making the best of a nigh-on impossible situation when challenging Gavin’s unit - have a player shadow him with the intent of disrupting his offensive rhythm.
Otherwise, Dublin will walk to another All-Ireland title and Kilkenny will be the Footballer of the Year.
Another man, even at this early juncture, that would have to be considered a seasonal MVP is Rock.
We are projecting here that Gavin’s side will retain Sam Maguire which you would not have to be a rocket scientist to suggest by any means.
Mayo and Kerry will, obviously, have much to say about that.
Nevertheless, it would take a brave, brave individual to back against Dublin and, at this rate, the pool of possible Footballer of the Year candidates can be narrowed down to the five Dubliners mentioned.
Yes, there is an awful lot of football to be contested yet.
However, if Kilkenny, Rock and Connolly maintain, and possibly even enhance their current form, they are nearly certain to be on that three-man shortlist. Oddly, Rock was a player under the radar so to speak up until his outrageous contribution of 1-10, including 1-4 in open play last Saturday.
This is possibly due to the fact people just recognise him as a reliable free-taker, and little more, which is a totally inaccurate perception. Rock’s input in-play has sky-rocketed this season.
The crafty way he slipped the ball inside Graham Brody’s post for Dublin’s opening goal epitomised his slick finishing too.
Previously, Rock’s work-rate was questioned in some quarters.
Still, that side of his game is absolutely revolutionised and Rock, in-play, is a different animal altogether now. His consistency is incredible and is clearly appreciated by Gavin too who must have him down as one of the first names on his team-sheet these days.
The Ballymun Kickhams’ star has been top-scoring for fun and is now a leader of this Dublin team.
It seems he has even more responsibility on his shoulders now and is thriving for it which is a measure of his mental strength too.
There are potentially memorable summers ahead for Kilkenny and Rock.