Nervy Meath eke out win

An intriguing feature of the build-up to Meath’s first championship outing was the positivity of the players and their insistence that Dublin aren’t unbeatable.

Nervy Meath eke out win

Graham Reilly went so far as to suggest on Saturday that ‘Dublin always fear Meath’. On the evidence of this display, it is hard to imagine Dublin are quaking in their boots.

Meath will undoubtedly improve and they will have to because at times, their defence was carved up by a side that finished joint bottom of Division 4 in the Allianz League.

The stats tell their own story; Meath just two points up with 10 minutes to go and three goals conceded. No, Dublin’s hearts won’t have fluttered as they reviewed the highlights from yesterday’s Páirc Tailteann offering.

It’s far more likely Dublin will see Kildare as the greatest threat, considering how the Lilies dismantled Laois on Saturday night. Kildare were ruthless in the second half of that encounter. Meath put themselves in a position to do something similar moving eight clear early in the second half against Wicklow but they lacked that same ability to kill off weaker opposition.

Instead, they allowed Wicklow to turn a game that should have been over into a contest and with an hour played, the outcome was in the balance.

So much so that Mick O’Dowd felt compelled to bring in injury-plagued Kevin Reilly from the bench to shore up an under-pressure defence. Meath had just conceded two penalties, both won by Conor McGraynor and both converted by the big man who only came as a replacement for the black-carded Niall Gaffney in the 28th minute.

McGraynor strode the full-forward line like a colossus and Meath were unable to cope with his bulk and brains.

For the second penalty, Meath keeper Paddy O’Rourke took to the dark arts and simply hauled McGraynor to the deck, reasoning that they may at least stand a chance from the penalty spot.

O’Rourke got a black card for his troubles but, initially, the foul appeared to have paid off as McGraynor blasted the kick wide. Referee Barry Cassidy ordered a retake for encroachment by Meath players and McGraynor hammered the second kick to the net.

Against that background of crisis, Reilly entered the fray and helped to settle things. Wicklow outscored Meath by a point in the second half but they only managed one more in the last 10 minutes when they needed to kick on.

Reilly can take some credit for that and will reason it was worth putting his aching hip through the torture. But Meath won’t always be so fortunate and the return of their experienced campaigners can’t come too soon.

Reilly and Bryan Menton both came on but weren’t fit to start while Conor Gillespie, Shane O’Rourke, Mickey Newman and Conor McGill were all notable absentees. They are expected to be fit for a Leinster semi-final with Westmeath in a a fortnight.

Meath require most improvement at the back where they struggled at times. They moved 1-3 to 0-1 clear early on thanks to 1-2 from Andy Tormey who shot a seventh-minute goal from a penalty.

But with four debutants in defence, Meath coughed up a goal to Paul Cronin in the 12th minute and points to Stephen Kelly, Daniel Woods and Thomas Kelly. After a great start, Meath were just 1-4 to 1-3 ahead after 15 minutes.

They would regroup and take a 1-11 to 1-6 half-time lead, thanks in part to a brace of points each from Reilly and Bryan McMahon. But there were several worrying situations. Woods was punching through the Meath rearguard too often while debutant full-back Brian Power was under tremendous pressure and a number of Wicklow scores came off him.

On the plus side for the Royals, they are rarely less than exciting going forward. Tormey shot 1-9 though all but a point of that came from placed balls. Reilly’s 1-4 was impressive and he took his goal well.

Meath led 2-13 to 1-8 with half an hour to play and should have cruised to the anticipated win. But Wicklow dug in again and McGraynor’s two spot kicks in the 45th and 56th minutes turned the tie on its head. When Thomas Kelly sniped a point in the 57th minute they were just two behind, 2-16 to 3-11. Wicklow’s afternoon would end in chaos though as they lost two players to red cards. Goalscorer Cronin walked for a second booking in the 62nd minute and wing-back Dean Healy went four minutes later. Healy received a black card following an earlier yellow.

On the scoreboard where it mattered most, Tormey added three points from placed balls to ease Meath home.

Scorers for Meath:

A Tormey (1-9, 1-0 penalty, seven frees, one 45), G Reilly (1-4), B McMahon (0-3), J Wallace, J McEntee and S Bray (0-1 each).

Scorers for Wicklow:

C McGraynor (2-1, 2-0 penalites), J McGrath (0-3, three frees), P Cronin (1-0), T Kelly (0-3), D Hayden (0-2), S Kelly, D Woods and P McLoughlin (0-1 each).

MEATH: P O’Rourke; J McEntee, B Power, D Tobin; N Judge, D Keogan, D Dalton; H Rooney, A Flanagan; A Tormey, P Harnan, G Reilly; J Wallace, S Bray, B McMahon.

Subs for Meath: M Burke for Judge (h/t), B Menton for Flanagan (48), E Wallace for J Wallace (51), Conor McHugh for O’Rourke (55, B/C), K Reilly for Dalton (58), S Tobin for Power (66).

WICKLOW: R Lambert; C Hyland, P Cunningham, A Murphy; D Healy, P McLoughlin, M Kenny; A McLoughlin, D Woods; D Hayden, S Kelly, N Gaffney; P Cronin, T Kelly, J McGrath.

Subs for Wicklow: C McGraynor for Gaffney 28 (B/C), R O’Brien for Cunningham (41), J Stafford for Woods (44), P Dalton for McLoughlin (49), B McCrea for McGrath (68), P McWalter for Kenny (69).

Referee: Barry Cassidy (Derry).

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