Sunday’s Leinster final may be a repeat of the decider 12 months ago but Tom Cribbin is confident that his Westmeath charges will be a very different side to the one that fell 13 points short of Dublin in 2015.
That appearance was Westmeath’s first in a provincial decider since the historic summer of 2004, when they claimed their first senior crown, under Páidí Ó Sé.
They made the showpiece having claimed Meath’s scalp for the first time in championship football in an unforgettable semi-final.
The midlanders amassed a stunning total of 7-54 in their three games against Louth, Wexford, and Meath but Dublin’s results and reputation triggered thoughts nothing more ambitious than those of survival, and Westmeath ultimately did little but batten down the hatches.
“Last year, we probably didn’t honestly believe that we could [win],” said Cribbin. “This year, we believe we can. There is more belief because we are willing to throw caution to the wind. Last year, they were terrified because we saw what happened to Longford and a few teams that went at them. They got demoralised, and they were beaten by 20-odd points, and we didn’t want that to happen. We wanted to go and give a performance without getting demoralised. But now we have a bit of belief. We’ve beaten Louth, Offaly, Meath, Laois, and Kildare. They are probably the next five teams in Leinster, so now they feel they are entitled to have a go at Dublin. Maybe last year, they didn’t feel they were entitled to have a go. Let’s see how far we are away. If we are still 20 points away, we are still 20 points away.”
How they go about winning is another matter. Lessons learned from last year mean that Westmeath should at least have a kick-out strategy to complement their defensive foundations but Dublin throw up tactical conundrums loaded with Catch 22s. Pressure Stephen Cluxton’s kick-outs, and you risk leaving too many gaps at the back. Allow them free reign and you run the risk of spending the day without the ball and frantically plugging gaps, as Jim Gavin’s side probes and prods for weaknesses.
Cribbin has done the maths. Even those Division One teams that push up on Cluxton’s kicks claim no more than 30% of them, and he argues there’s no point in adopting that strategy if you don’t have players quick enough to stay with their markers.
An Australian friend of his paid a visit to Ireland last week and thought he had an answer to Cribbin’s dilemma. The problem is it involves pushing up high on Cluxton whilst leaving two of Dublin’s full-forwards unmarked at the kick-outs.
AFL teams do it all the time and the Aussie International Rules team did it last year against Ireland. It’s high-risk, high-reward stuff. Too much so. Cribbin isn’t prepared to gamble all on a ploy he believes his players would struggle to buy into.
“I don’t think we’d be brave enough, because the lads wouldn’t commit to it. They’d be so nervous, they wouldn’t commit to it. And maybe professional teams that are playing week in, week out, can commit to something like that. But this is a do-or-die situation for us.
“It’s Westmeath’s fifth time ever to be in Croke Park for a Leinster final, so for me to try and convince players ‘don’t mark on the full-back line for the Dublin kick-outs, push up’ … but otherwise we’d have it very, very difficult to stop their kick-outs.”
Dublin have won 10 of the 11 Delaney Cups on offer since Westmeath’s breakthrough 12 years ago. The one break in the chain came in 2010, when Meath hit them for five goals, so it’s not a surprise that Cribbin sees something in that.
Westmeath have analysed every goal conceded by Dublin this decade and they will have surely noted that they conceded three to Donegal two years ago in what was their only championship defeat since 2012. “Any team that’s going to beat Dublin has to get goals. We reckon we’ve no chance of beating them unless we get three goals and we don’t concede a goal. That’s the way we’ll be planning the game. We’ve nothing to lose.”
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