Defence is a word Dublin have heard a lot this year, usually in the context of ‘how do you see the defence of your league, Leinster and All-Ireland crowns going?’
Last year Donegal’s defence of Sam Maguire was blown away at the quarter-final stage when Mayo punched hole after hole in their vaunted rearguard.
It’s a question many defending champions struggle to cope with. If you are playing to defend something, does that change the way you approach the fresh task at hand in front of you? With 69 minutes gone, Dublin 3-19 Meath 1-10, Mickey Newman was trying to create a consolation score by attacking the left side of Dublin’s defence but he was chased down by Jack McCaffrey then met with a bone-crunching shoulder from James McCarthy which knocked him to the ground. Newman managed to recycle the ball and it eventually made its way to Joey Wallace who kicked a wide as pressure from Rory O’Carroll and Michael Fitzsimons forced him to rush his effort.
This phase of play was a prime example of how the day went for either team and how this Leinster title winning performance was based on defence.
Jonny Cooper, arguably Dublin’s best defender to date this year, was a late withdrawal through injury and was replaced by Fitzsimons while Jack McCaffrey also replaced Kevin Nolan before throw in. It was the first start for both men in this year’s Championship and an area Meath would have felt they could exploit. Dublin chose not to match up Rory O’Carroll with Stephen Bray after the Meath man had caused him problems in last year’s corresponding fixture and handed Fitzsimons the man-marking job.
It was evident from early on that Jim Gavin had got these match ups spot on, as O’Carroll and Fitzsimons continually contested first phase ball being delivered in. When they didn’t spoil it or intercept it they were forcing Meath forwards away from the danger area.
Meath had shown in their semi-final victory against Kildare that they had an ability to create goal chances but apart from Newman’s neat second-half finish, they rarely troubled Stephen Cluxton and were well marshalled throughout.
Any ball that did break from long Meath deliveries was swept up by the Dublin half-back line and this allowed McCaffrey and McCarthy provide the springboard for Dublin to transition the ball quickly to their midfield and half forwards to put Meath on the back foot.
Meath also seemed to change tactic with their kick-out which had previously seen Paddy O’Rourke launch long, direct punts to shorter, placed kick-outs into space. O’Rourke backed himself with a number of these but on several occasions he was putting the player receiving the ball under pressure and Dublin had a number of turnovers as a result. It also limited the impact of Shane O’Rourke, who struggled to match the mobility of Michael Darragh Macauley and Cian O’Sullivan.
Yet again, Dublin’s attack put up a big score. Against Laois, they totalled 27 points, 31 was the total in the semi-final against Wexford and 29 points yesterday. These are totals that will win virtually every game, so if teams continue to come to Croke Park and try to match them score for score and beat them in a shoot-out, they know they have a very high target to reach. For most teams, it’s unrealistic and it’ll be even more difficult if the Dublin defence continues to shut down teams as it did with Meath’s front six.
While they have defended their league and Leinster titles, everything we’ve seen so far this year from Dublin indicates that not only are they not thinking about how to defend these titles, they are working out how to keep raising the bar and improving their manner of victory against whatever is next in front of them.
We know how rare it is that teams manage to keep this going but you get the feeling if they do manage, it will be based as much on the ability to defend as it will the ability to put up big scores.