Posted by Ewan MacKenna

Meath weren't quite good enough to capitalise on Dublin's frailties, but they showed that Jim Gavin's men have real weaknesses

2013 Dublin Meath
A penny for the thoughts of Éamonn Fitzmaurice. As the Kerry manager took his seat ahead of the Leinster final, we can only imagine he was thinking just what the rest of us were.

A massacre was on the cards, and those headed for the last eight and beyond would already need to work on a plan to combat the fastest and most exciting team in the sport right now.

But on Sunday, while the likes of Paul Mannion, Ciarán Kilkenny and Jack McCaffrey showed guts, spirit and calmness beyond their years, Meath showed what to do, and more importantly what not to do, when it comes to facing Dublin.

They ticked positive boxes to get close, but ticked enough negative boxes to make sure they were caught before they could get close to the finishing line. 

Nineteen hours before throw-in, Kieran McGeeney was being interviewed after his side’s win over Louth in the qualifiers and referred to the mauling they’d taken at the hands of the Leinster champions.

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He noted that most people hadn’t bothered to watch the game again on tape, but if they had then they’d have realised Kildare had a lot of possession, particularly in the first half, but the problem was turning it over.

That’s the first cardinal sin playing this Dublin because against them, more than any other county, possession is not just nine-tenths of the law, it is the entire law.

If you turn it over, your defence doesn’t have time to set, your midfield and half-forward line don’t have time to get back, you’ll be run ragged and you won’t have to chance to punish any frailty in their full-back line. That’s what has happened in all three of their games in this provincial championship.

But there’s a second cardinal sin too and to make sure you don’t commit it, it takes magnificent concentration and ferocious energy. At no stage can Stephen Cluxton be allowed to kick the ball short, to men that are open, for this is the foundation for so much of what Dublin build in attack.

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The captain has to be forced to kick it long, for as good as the Dublin midfield are at breaking forward, they aren’t the best at catching clean or winning dirty ball. If you can force 50-50 restarts by pushing up and getting tight on the Dublin back six as well as their wing-forwards, hit hard in the middle, win breaking ball and hold it, then you’re in good shape. Easier said than done, but it has to be done.

In fairness to Meath, they did well in terms of the second rule from early on and that was a big reason why they led at half-time. In fact between that, and the way they utilised the space between Dublin’s very attacking half-back line and their full-back line, they showed the rest just how to get at Jim Gavin’s side and at his attacking gameplan. Mickey Newman and Stephen Bray in particular ran great lines with a lot of space in front of them, the ball in was good and that caused problems. 

But the first rule allowed Dublin keep close and then surge past their great rivals. It would be wrong to ignore just how good Dublin are, because that’s key to so much of this. They punish you in a way no other team can, but that’s why it’s so crucial not to gift them the scenarios they crave.

And if you want to see where it went wrong for Meath, then here’s a breakdown of the scores they conceded.

0-1 An awful Meath clearance out of defence under no pressure, Kilkenny sets up the move, Mickey Burke is isolated on Mannion who takes him for pace and scores.

1-1 A free is moved up, Kilkenny takes it quick, Mannion drags Burke across the front of the defence and Flynn gets in to net.

1-2 Newman didn’t finish a chance from a tight angle, but crucially he didn’t put it dead. That leads to a quick break, Kilkenny gets it in middle, Jack McCaffrey uses his pace to make ground and Diarmuid Connolly steps by the overrun Graham Reilly to slot over.

1-3 Seamus Kenny, under no pressure coming out of the defence, kicks the ball away. Dublin use the pace of McCaffrey to counter, Mannion is utilised as he has again isolated Burke and wins a free he converts himself.

1-4 Stephen Cluxton 45 on a day when he was hit and miss from long range by his own high standards.

1-5 Kilkenny as Dublin break the length of the field from a short kickout.

1-6 Conor Gillespie plays an awful ball to Mickey Burke, meaning Seamus Kenny is forced to foul Connolly. Bernard Brogan puts over the dead ball.

1-7 Paul Flynn scores after Dublin win an uncontested Meath kickout that’s well off target.

1-8 A needless Seamus Kenny pass to the feet of an under pressure Peader Byrne sees Jack McCaffrey turn it over, his pace sets the counter and Kilkenny eventually points.

1-9 A brilliant Kilkenny point after a ball from Brogan who took three men out. But what began the move was a bad kickout by Paddy O’Rourke, straight to Connolly on the Cusack Stand touchline.

1-10 James McCarthy is stupidly pushed in the back by Reilly when the ball had been turned over in Meath’s favour. Cluxton slots over after some handbags.

1-11 Bryan Menton makes a mess of clearing it and ends up giving away a free to cover his tracks. Mannion easily prods it over.

1-12 Mannion gets a great score but the origins are from a short Cluxton kickout. Meath began to lose their focus and energy at this point when it came to Dublin’s restarts.

1-13 Another short kickout allows Michael Dara MacAuley to do what he does best, breaking the half-back line on the front foot with ball in hand. Conor Gillespie drags him down and Cluxton nails a huge free.

2-13 It may have seemed the killer goal that started with Graham Reilly getting hammered over the line by McCarthy but the previous kickouts suggested the Meath tank was near empty.

2-14 Connolly brilliance sets up Dean Rock – a score that couldn’t be stopped.

2-15 Mickey Burke is again isolated on Mannion, a free is given away and Rock pops over.

Dissecting that lot, Meath gave away 0-7 from turning ball over, gave up another 0-2 from their own kickouts being aimlessly given away and 0-4 of Dublin’s tally came from Cluxton being allowed to kick it short, giving his speedy defence the chance to carry forward uncontested.

That last stat not only added to Dublin’s total but took away from Meath’s possession as their victories from long kickouts in the first half were crucial in allowing Stephen Bray to act as a focal point for the attack.

Indeed that glut of scores hurt Meath every bit as the 2-6 or so they wasted in attack, particularly in the opening quarter. And their poor passing could have cost them far more only for Dublin’s bad finishing. Again, these turnovers are in part down to Dublin’s pressure and ability to punish mistakes, but they are mistakes that shouldn’t be made by the very elite.

To say Meath lost it is far too harsh on both sides, as only an exceptional team can do everything right. An exceptional team like Dublin are. And there were yet again many positives, aside from their youngsters standing up and never panicking when it was put up to them in the first half.

Kilkenny kicked three points but had a hand in another 1-4 through his 32 possessions and he is becoming a playmaker like Marty Clarke for Down in 2010. Ger Brennan and Eoghan O’Gara, so good the last day, struggled and didn’t last but that just demonstrated the strength of Dublin’s panel and how they can so easily change any broken part.

And even Bernard Brogan’s performance was misleading. Criticising him for just a point from a free is to miss his value these days. He’s being shackled by so many defenders, that so long as he can lay it off having sucked in markers, then there’s room for others.

It doesn’t look as good as a score he gets himself but it’s still a score for Dublin. Indeed his past personal exploits have meant his present role is as far more of a team player.

But even with all these positives, Jim Gavin will be bothered that the rest of the country has been shown exactly how to get at Dublin. Suddenly, they don’t look as invincible as they did on Sunday morning.

It’s debatable whether Éamonn Fitzmaurice have gone home any happier from his day at headquarters but he certainly won’t have gone home any more worried or with any fear.

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