As Sunday’s Leinster Football Semi-Final showdown approaches between Dublin and Westmeath there is a real air of familiarity in both counties as this will be the 3rd consecutive year in which they’ve met in the provincial championship.
Westmeath’s footballers must be sick at the sight of the Dublin football team at this stage. The Lake County have thoroughly improved in recent years under the tutelage of Kildare native Tom Cribbin taking big Leinster scalps such as Meath and Kildare in the last couple of years. However, in each of the past couple of years, they have been rewarded with a Leinster final clash with the All-Ireland champions, tasting defeat on both occasions after defiant performances up until after half time.
Indeed, it is a daunting task for Westmeath as they look to end Dublin’s provincial dominance which has seen them go unbeaten since shipping 5 goals to eternal rivals, Meath, in the now infamous Leinster semi-final in June 2010. Since 2005 Dublin have won the last 36 of their last 38 Leinster Championship matches which highlights their stranglehold on Leinster.
They say that familiarity breeds contempt but that will not be the case with Jim Gavin’s Dublin team as they look to reach their 7th consecutive Leinster final upon their return to GAA headquarters tomorrow afternoon. The ‘Dubs’ know that even though they may have beaten Westmeath by 12 and 15 points in their previous two meetings that they will face a stubborn side tomorrow that frustrated them for periods throughout.
In last year’s game Dublin went in with a point to spare at half time but pulled away from Westmeath in the third quarter with their strong bench making an impact. Westmeath were criticised in some quarters for adopting a negative approach but Tom Cribbin was being pragmatic in his plan.
He recently conceded that ‘‘no team in the country would take Dublin on man for man.’’ He does feel that such an approach is needed when facing Dublin: ‘‘There’s no point in not being in the game at half time. You have to last as long as you can.’’
Both sides have points to prove in tomorrow’s game. Westmeath will look to show that they have improved after their Allianz League success and that they will not cave in after half time in this encounter. They needed a replay to beat lowly Offaly in their quarter final and will be hoping for a better showing this time out.
Dublin meanwhile were lethargic in Portlaoise against Carlow the last day with their shot accuracy letting them down racking up double figures in the wide count. For periods they struggled to break down a massed Carlow defence but the game changed when Carlow’s talisman, Brendan Murphy, got sent off, with Dublin pressing home their numerical advantage and romping to a 12 point victory. The game and performance, however, was overshadowed by Diarmuid Connolly’s suspension for pushing a sideline official.
Out until a potential semi-final, Connolly’s absence opens a gap for established veterans such as Paddy Andrews, Bernard Brogan and Paul Flynn to re-establish themselves in Gavin’s starting 15. It also provides an opportunity for newer players like Conor McHugh and Con O’Callaghan to carve their way into Gavin’s plans for the remainder of the Championship.
Westmeath boast some talented footballers in their squad such as captain Ger Egan who is a busy wing-forward, Kieran Martin and playmaking centre-half forward Paul Sharry but none more so than the man from St Loman’s, John Heslin. An imposing figure, Heslin can play anywhere from full forward to midfield and possesses a safe pair of hands in possession. An accurate free-taker, his accuracy off both feet is unerring. He will be central to Westmeath hopes on Sunday and I feel that he should be kept working in tandem with Kieran Martin on the edge of the Dublin square to cause Dublin some problems in their half-back line.
Westmeath must adopt a pragmatic approach again but should try and mix things up a bit more this time with Heslin and Martin kept in the scoring zone to score or win possession. They will need to filter men back across their own 45 to stop Dublin’s half-back line which features the electric Jack McCaffrey and Niall Scully making piercing runs forward and receiving the ball facing the Westmeath goal. It is paramount however, that a link man is kept roving around the Dublin 45 to pick up possession when Westmeath counter to supply the two inside forwards; Paul Sharry would be the ideal candidate for this role.
As I’ve highlighted before, Dublin have a very strong bench which could feature the likes of Paul Flynn, Bernard Brogan, Michael Darragh MacAuley and Conor McHugh which should ensure Dublin pulling away towards the end. The most common facet to Dublin’s attacking play this year is their marauding half-backs. The All-Ireland Champions need to mix things up a little bit more themselves and try and supply more footpasses into their full forward line, the game is changing however which has seen the likes of Bernard Brogan have a reduced impact in recent times.
Brogan concedes that the game has changed: “Yeah, the role of the full-forward has changed a lot in the last two or three years. The days when I started where it was man-on-man; you’d kick the ball in and I’d take you on and we’ll see who comes out on top — those days are gone.
There is no space in there. Every time you get a ball, if you beat one man another man comes at you and another man. All sports evolve, everything changes so it’s a new challenge, but it’s enjoyable.”
Sports evolve, teams evolve, questions however always remain. Will Westmeath have learned from their previous encounters or will the Dubs most likely book a Leinster Final date with Kildare in July? We will find out tomorrow.