Lacklustre Dubs given a real test by lively Laois

LEINSTER SFC QUARTER-FINAL:

Lacklustre Dubs given a real test by lively Laois

Were Laois impressive? Yes. Were Dublin below their best? Yes. Reasons for cheer for everyone else, then? Well, yes and no. Not if they can win by that margin against a decent team while playing in such fits and starts.

The defeated underdogs emerged from Croke Park after this Leinster quarter-final having put the frights on Dublin and upheld their honour and yet they did so on the back of an 11-point defeat against a side far, far from their best.

What will Jim Gavin’s lot be like when the rust is polished off? In the aftermath, both camps pinpointed the importance of Laois’s first outing against Wicklow last month and the absence of any such warm-up for the All-Ireland champions as a reason for the latter’s tougher-than-expected outing.

The timeline supports that.

Laois were clever, busy and aggressive in a first-half which they edged by 10 points to eight, but they fell away after the interval when Dublin emptied their considerable bench and unloaded 2-13.

Gavin will be happy with the democracy of effort: 14 of his players contributed to the scoreboard and nine points alone came from the second wave with Cormac Costello and Dean Rock pitching in with two-thirds of that.

In doing so, they proved once again that the modern Dubs are the polar opposites to their predecessors. They now embrace pressure where once they habitually folded under it. Individually, there was less cause for celebration.

Paddy Andrews took the game to the Laois defence from the off, Paul Flynn was his understated and excellent self and Kevin McManamon came off the bench for an injured Bernard Brogan to bop around the Laois rearguard like a pinball machine.

Brogan, incidentally, should be fine for the semi-final against Wexford at the end of the month. Denis Bastick should be back too, although Ger Brennan’s ankle injury looks like keeping him in cold storage a while longer.

But back to yesterday.

Laois came expecting to be competitive and, with the majority of their starting XV holding underage provincial medals, they had the talent to back it up.

Tomás Ó Flatharta took defence to rarified heights during his time with Westmeath, but he took over from Justin McNulty in Laois with the expectation that he would loosen those shackles imposed by the Armagh man.

The result was a side still wedded to core defensive principals with Billy Sheehan and the excellent Conor Meredith sweeping at the back, but one far more eager to attend to its attacking duties as well.

They did their homework, too. Stephen Cluxton’s kick-outs were targeted impressively and a Dublin defence with Nicky Devereux making his debut at centre-back was pulled this way and that with intelligently constructed deliveries.

And in Ross Munnelly they had the game’s in-form poacher. The veteran forward struck for five points from play despite the attentions of three markers on the day and linked superbly in the opening stages with Donie Kingston.

The big Arles-Killeen man set up a quartet of points early on, but his travails after the break were symbolic of how the tables had turned on a side that by then could hardly buy a break.

The last time Laois saw off Dublin in the championship was 2003. Dublin kicked 16 wides that day and saw Fergal Byron make two superb saves on their way to losing by two points and for a while, history seemed to be repeating itself.

As rusty as Dublin were in the first 35 they still engineered a glut of openings. Bernard Brogan and Michael Darragh Macauley were both denied goals by superb Graham Brody saves while Paddy Andrews and Diarmuid Connolly both struck the woodwork.

With the younger Brogan limping off and Darren Daly following for tactical reasons midway through the first-period, Laois had the foothold they needed. With 40 minutes played, they had led for all but four of them. Which was as good as it got.

Dublin’s momentum was already bubbling by the time Connolly claimed the first goal after 47 minutes. The fact the St Vincent’s man had time to slip, steady himself and shoot before doing so spoke volumes of the change in circumstances.

Eight minutes later and the game was over, Macauley driving home after an unfortunate slip from Laois’ emergency full-back Paul Begley who had engaged in a worthy battle with Eoghan O’Gara up until then.

Laois somehow kept in touch entering the final stretch. Only five points separated the pair with eight minutes left, but the underdogs were already on the ropes before the mop-up squad arrived in the form of Costello and Rock.

Not the sort of display that will net Dublin another All-Ireland title, but the difficulties imposed by a solid and capable Laois side was exactly what they needed.

Scorers for Laois: R Munnelly (0-7, 2fs), D Kingston (0-3, 2fs), D Strong (0-2), J O’Loughlin, J Finn D Conway, N Donoher (0-1 each).

Scorers for Dublin: D Connolly (1-1), MD Macauley (1-0), P Flynn, C Costello, D Rock (3fs) (0-3 each), K McManamon, S Cluxton (2 45s) (0-2 each), J McCarthy, C O’Sullivan, A Brogan, P Andrews, E O’Gara, B Cullen, B Brogan (f) (0-1 each).

LAOIS: G Brody; P McMahon, P Begley, P O’Leary; D Strong, S Attride, C Begley; K Meaney, J O’Loughlin; J Finn, C Meredith, B Sheehan; R Munnelly, D Kingston, D Conway. Subs for Laois: N Donoher for Sheehan (32), E Lowry for Meaney (51), R Kehoe for Attride (59), E O’Carroll for Conway (65), P Kingston for Finn (67).

DUBLIN: S Cluxton; D Daly, R O’Carroll, P McMahon; J Cooper, N Devereux, J McCarthy; MD Macauley, C O’Sullivan; P Flynn, P Andrews, D Connolly; A Brogan, E O’Gara, B Brogan. Subs for Dublin: K McManamon for B Brogan (24), J McCaffrey for Daly (30), B Cullen for O’Gara (44), C Costello for A Brogan (51), D Rock for O’Sullivan (59), P Mannion for Andrews (68).

Referee: P Hughes (Armagh)

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