There’s been much discussion and debate in recent weeks about both the structures of the championship and the quality of games we have seen to date.
These debates have stemmed from a lack of competitive championship football and a worrying increase of teams going to the blanket defence and slow hand-passing style of play. We’re seeing match stats now where teams hand-pass the ball nearly twice as many times as they kick it. However yesterday’s Leinster semi-final between Meath and Wexford bucked the trend, as ‘traditional’ a game as you will see. There was no sign of any mass defence or sweepers; it was the very essence of man-on-man football. It was refreshing to see and made for very interesting viewing.
With both teams willing to play like this, it shows both sets of management had enough trust in their players to deliver a performance without implementing any complicated systems or game plans to get the job done. Wexford, who were coming off a very good victory away to Louth, in the previous round got to grips with things slightly quicker than Meath via the platform given them by their midfielders, Daithi Waters and Rory Quinlivan.
Two big ball-winners, they both secured a number of clean catches and Wexford will regret not opening up a bigger lead in the first half.
Slowly Conor Gillespie, Meath’s huge midfielder, began to get on top around the middle and by virtue of increasing dominance over Waters, Meath finished the half strongly and only went in one point down.
This battle around the middle third was another example at how ‘traditional’ this game was, with goalkeepers Paddy O’Rourke and Anthony Masterson both happy to put the ball on the tee and drive it as long as they could and let their midfielders compete for it. Around the pitch there were intriguing match-ups, Graham Molloy and Stephen Bray, Brian Malone and Graham Reilly and Red Barry against Kevin Reilly.
As the game developed, the players would have been aware that with the mano-a-mano style, winning personal battles was going to be crucial. There would be no fallback of saying you were playing to a system and shared responsibility — this was a situation where players know they have to step up, and more Meath players welcomed that challenge than their Wexford counterparts. I have always felt Meath players relish this type of situation, especially in Croke Park. They have an attitude and belief that they will perform there and often you see what many would consider, on paper, an average Meath team beat a supposedly better team.
As the second half progressed, this mentality was beginning to wear Wexford down and Meath men were starting to win key individual battles. Gillespie was on top of Waters, Stephen Bray was slowly getting the better of Graham Molloy with the Graham Reilly/Brian Malone battle arguably being the games decisive one. Reilly was very impressive going forward and kicked four excellent points and his direct running drove Meath on in the second half. That said, there were numerous times he neglected Malone who drove Wexford on and kicked two scores of his own from wing back. However Reilly looked the fitter of the two and he took over in the last quarter, with Malone resorting to fouls.
Such indiscretions from tiring defenders are a cardinal sin when you are trying to play a man-on-man defence. On too many occasions Wexford backs put in a lazy or sloppy tackle in grabbing the jersey or pushing a Meath forward rather than forcing them to kick points from play under pressure. This allowed free-taker Michael Newman amass nine points from placed balls. Newman has a nice kicking style from the ground and while he missed a couple of second-half efforts his overall conversion rate will have pleased him.
Meath have a Leinster final to look forward to, but will be wary after seeing Dublin’s destruction of Kildare. However maybe that’ll suit Meath as they have nothing to lose. Meath v Dublin in a Leinster final? It doesn’t get more traditional than that.
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