IS Leinster the new Ulster?
Perhaps on the basis that Seamus McEneaney, Justin McNulty and Kieran McGeeney are calling the shots for three of the leading football championship contenders. But no-one is kidding themselves yet that the province could be regarded as a “minefield”. Nor do I expect to hear the term “dogfight” to describe any of the forthcoming action.
The way the provincial draw has fallen this year with Louth, Wexford, Westmeath, Offaly and Carlow on one side and Dublin, Meath, Kildare, Laois on the other, means you will get a lot of close, fairly open, exciting matches between evenly-matched teams that will be difficult to predict. However that doesn’t mean the games will be high quality. And there is the possibility of a one-sided final, especially if Dublin emerge from their side of the draw.
Carlow look the weakest of the bunch and I don’t see them stretching Louth. Longford, in fairness, have momentum after winning the Division 4 title in Croke Park and possess a top-class goalkeeper in Damien Sheridan and three scoring forwards in Paul Barden, Sean McCormack and Brian Kavanagh. The latter certainly has the ability to trouble Laois full-back Kevin Meaney, but after a lively 70 minutes in Portlaoise tomorrow, there will be no upset here.
Up front for Mick O’Dwyer’s Wicklow, Seanie Furlong and Leighton Glynn form a little and large combination with a telepathic understanding that’s as good as anything else in Leinster. Austin O’Malley, who had an impressive league campaign, will be a help too. Under Mick O’Dwyer, Wicklow have become very difficult championship opponents but having shocked Kildare three years ago, I don’t see them winning enough ball at midfield to repeat the trick in Portlaoise tomorrow.
There’s not a lot between Wexford, Westmeath, Louth and Offaly and very little separated them in Division 3 this year.
Westmeath have momentum with promotion from Division 3 halting the slide of two successive relegations. I felt they were the better side in the league decider against Louth, and adding Dessie Dolan and John Heslin to that team suggests a Leinster final berth is in the offing.
But what of the main contenders in the province? Meath, after an awful league campaign, showed in their final game against Tyrone they have an ability to raise their game for a quality opponent. They will need to hit the ground running, but it’s not beyond reason to suggest they might beat Kildare with the tame surrender in the second-half of last year’s quarter-final as motivation.
Joe Sheridan’s league form is a concern and Stephen Bray’s lack of football too. The health of Kevin Reilly, Graham Reilly and Shane O’Rourke is of paramount importance and it’s too early to make a judgment on Graham Geraghty’s return to the squad. But overall, there’s not enough consistency in Meath to indicate a sustained provincial or qualifier run.
Laois have a bit of momentum and, with promotion to Division 1, are heading in the right direction. Their conditioning has improved and they no longer have the look of a schoolboy team. MJ Tierney has put up some big totals in the league from placed balls and certainly to beat Laois, you mustn’t give away lots of frees. Darren Strong has been excellent going forward for Laois from half-back but they need a fit Padraig Clancy firing. Laois looked much more threatening when Donie Kingston came on at full-forward against Donegal and I like the look of a full-forward line of Tierney, Kingston and Ross Munnelly.
Although strongly built, I have reservations about the agility of the Laois full-back line. It’s a work in progress and while they’ll take a bit of beating, they’re not ready for Dublin yet. This is a team and a manager who could have a right cut at the qualifiers.
Kildare? Based on the two quarter-finals and a semi-final in three years, coupled with a rightful sense of injustice from refereeing decisions in the Down semi-final last year, the Lilies should be real contenders for Sam Maguire.
So why am I not convinced? If a team is a genuine contender for September, it shouldn’t be rooted mid-table in Division 2. Last year’s All Star Peter Kelly is a big loss at corner-back, Dermot Earley is a massive miss at midfield. James Kavanagh’s peripheral role during the league casts doubts on his ability to kick on from last year. Can Johnny Doyle maintain the standards he has set in recent years? Fionn Dowling is a good prospect but is not ready yet.
The suspicion lingers that Kieran McGeeney has got a huge amount out of this bunch of players, but this year will see the team take a step back followed by some rebuilding. Remember, Kildare have a number of talented and physically big players coming through from the minor ranks.
And so to the Dubs. Definite top three team, but a little more vulnerable just now than a few weeks ago. I may be in the minority but I feel there are plenty of positives for Dublin and the league defeat will keep the hype at bay. If Mossy Quinn misses an easy free, does that mean the rest of the Dublin team has no bottle? Hardly. The free-taking is curable and wasn’t a problem last season when Bernard and Steven Cluxton converted most of their opportunities. Kevin McManamon has had a second impressive league campaign and looks ready now to bring that form to the championship. Alan Brogan looks to have finally bought into the manager’s philosophy while Diarmuid Connolly has improved and I would pick him ahead of Eoghan O’Gara, who’s a better impact sub.
Their defence needs to find the balance between indiscipline in their tackling last year and no tackling this year. That should be manageable. Importantly, though he had a quiet league final, Michael Darragh McAuley is a leader at midfield. I feel they have a great chance of getting to the All-Ireland final but with the hype, the occasion would take a bit of handling. I still feel this group may have to lose one before they win one.
Picture: KEY MAN: An All Star at corner back last year, Peter Kelly is a huge loss for Kildare. Picture: Barry Cregg / Sportsfile
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