By Keiran Rooney
Dublin supporters have been given some genuine reasons to look forward to their All-Ireland campaign following Sunday’s impressive 2-14 to 1-11 Allianz National Football League Division One success over Tyrone.
It was far from the perfect day in that Cork’s failure to beat Mayo has deprived the Dubs of a place in the NFL Division One final. Instead, Cork and Mayo will meet again in the league decider, the Rebel county getting in ahead of Dublin because they beat them earlier in the campaign.
Disappointing as that is for Dublin manager Pat Gilroy, he undoubtedly came away from Omagh hugely encouraged by the way his team put Tyrone away. This, after all, wasn’t any run-of-the-mill match.
Tyrone desperately needed a victory to avoid relegation, and everyone knows that once Mickey Harte’s team is on a mission they generally deliver. Not this time however.
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They were never really in the game as the Dubs produced probably their best football of their campaign to run them ragged at times. So, the Ulster champions will now find themselves in Division Two, a situation no one could surely have envisaged at the start of the campaign.
“It’s very disappointing to leave this division after being in it for so long.” admitted Harte. “But we are going to have to come to terms with it and move on. You always want to be in the top division, you strive to be there. In fact, we strive to win it.
“We’re far from that position at the minute, so we’re not happy but we have to make the best of it. And, if we can do that by winning the Ulster title that will be a start,” he said.
Unfortunately, just two wins from their seven league matches is hardly the ideal preparation for that championship. Dublin, by comparison, look in a pretty healthy state, although Gilroy knows from experience the last thing he can ever do is to read too much into good performances.
Importantly, the league has given Gilroy the opportunity to look at a lot of different players and try new things. Not everything has come off, but, for the most part, he’s been encouraged.
He said: “We’ve used 32 different players. We’ve probably learned to be a bit better defensively when we have concentrated on it. We still know there’s a gap between us and the top guys but when you see something like today, you feel we’re making progress and closing that gap.”
Interestingly, only five of the team that beat Tyrone featured in the embarrassing All-Ireland defeat by Kerry last year. So, Gilroy has clearly put in a lot of work, which seems to be paying off.
Certainly, they produced some smashing attacking football in the first half at Omagh making superb use of space. No one was better than Bernard Brogan who finished with eight points, only two of which came from frees.
For good measure, he helped to set up the two goals as the impressive Dubs established a 2-10 to 0-7 lead. The first was a family affair with Bernard finding his brother Alan who turned and sent a low shot into the net.
Alan Brogan’s first appearance of the season as a substitute was yet another bonus for Gilroy. If that goal was good, the second, just before half time, was even better, with Eamonn Fennell initially linking well with Alan Brogan.
Alan found his brother Bernard. He duly passed to Niall Corkery who thumped a shot into the goal. Effectively, the score should have finished Tyrone but they were given some encouragement early in the second half when the Dublin goalkeeper Mick Savage lost possession, allowing Martin Penrose get a soft Tyrone goal.
When Peter Harte quickly added a point, the lead was down to five points. But the Tyrone revival was short lived, and although the Dubs only contributed four more points in the second half, they were never really troubled.
The only pity, of course, was that Cork should lose at home to Mayo. Not that it was a problem for Mayo who added to their growing reputation by winning by 0-16 to 0-11 at Paric Ui Chaoimh.
While Cork rested some of their regulars, this was a top class performance from Mayo. They won with some ease, Conor Mortimer and Alan Dillon each contributing four points.
Cork were only really competitive in the first half. The sides were level 0-7 each at that stage, but Mayo were much faster out of the blocks in the second period, adding five quick points. Cork, in truth, were never in it and they could only muster four second half points, one of which was from play.
Hardly the sort of display to encourage their boss Conor Counihan but Mayo will appreciate that they will come up against a very different Cork outfit in Sunday week’s league decider.
In many ways, the real drama was at the bottom of the table where Derry have joined Tyrone in Division Two. That, in spite of them producing a fine display to defeat Galway 2-13 to 1-12 at Pearse Stadium.
Tyrone, Derry and Monaghan finshed level on the four point mark but Monaghan’s superior scoring record kept them in the top flight.
Consequently, they actually had something to celebrate after losing by 1-16 to 1-12 to Kerry at Fitzgerald Stadium.
Crucially, Kerry had also survived with a much more encouraging display for manager Jack O’Connor. But, if he was relieved, his opposite number Seamus McEnaney was positively beaming.
“Look, we beat Tyrone. We beat Derry. So, we’re entitled to stay up,” he stressed. Tyrone and Derry will be replaced in Division One by another Ulster pair, Down and Armagh, who will meet in the Division Two final.
3 provinces qualify for European semis
Never mind that Ireland lost so disappointingly to Scotland in their final Six Nations encounter, Irish rugby is alive and kicking. Leinster, Munster and Connacht all reached European semi-finals after what was surely one of the most exciting weekends ever.
Leinster and Munster are through to the last four of the Heineken Cup where they will face away games against Toulouse and Biarritz. Not easy, by any standards, but clearly no one can write off their chances.
Just how Leinster managed to beat another top French side Clarmont Auvergne 29-28 before a capacity 18,500 attendance at the RDS on Friday night is anyone’s guess. The sheer power of Clermont and their pace out wide made this the most formidable of challenges for the holders.
Somehow they survived in the most tense of circumstances with the visiting out-half Brock James missing a drop goal attempt with the last kick to the game. Thankfully, from Leinster’s point of view, James had an off day, only kicking five from nine and also missing three drop goal attempts.
By complete contrast, his opposite number Jonathan Sexton had regained his goal-kicking touch, landing seven from eight. And what made those statistics all the more remarkable is that Sexton played the last 25 minutes with a fractured jaw.
He underwent surgery in a Dublin Hospital on Saturday morning, and Leinster are now hoping he recovers in time for the May 1 trip to Toulouse. Quite clearly, the holders are going to need him, just as they are going to need Rob Kearney, Brian O’Driscoll and Shane Horgan who are also nursing injuries.
If Leinster did get something badly wrong, it may have been that they opted to start Horgan after a long lay off with his foot injury. He was never himself, something which Clermont wing Julen Malzieu took full advantage of to score three tires.
It was a fantastic game, with Leinster often having to defend desperately. Clermont establishing a 10-0 advantage before man-of-the-match Jamie Heaslip came into his won, scoring two tries for Leinster. The first came after a superb off-load from O’Driscoll.
Suddenly Leinster were 20-10 ahead, but once again Clermont hit back to reduce the deficit to 20-18. Eventually, the visitors were to go in front 28-23, only for Sexton to land two more penalties to leave Leinster 29-28 ahead going into those dramatic closing moments.
“We’ve seen it before, haven’t we.” reflected a much relieved Leinster coach Michel Cheika, referring to last season’s narrow quarter-final succes over Harlequins. “We just hung in there and took our opportunities, but our discipline was really poor, not good enough to win the Heineken Cup.”
No such disciplinary problems with Munster. Very often they are at their best after a defeat, and that again proved to be the case when they accounted for Northampton 33-19 in another pulsating quarter-final before a full house at Thomond Park on Saturday.
What made it all the more impressive is that Munster had to play without their captain Paul O’Connell. Yet they were right back to their very best, doing much of the hard work when playing into the wind in the first half.
Somewhat unluckily trailing 16-13 at the break, they left nothing to chance as they took control in the second half. Even without O’Connell, the forwards were great, Jerry Flannery leading the way, with Dolphin’s James Coughlan making a big impression on his first Heineken Cup start at number eight.
Tomas O’Leary and Ronan O’Gara had big games at half-back. O’Leary was named man-of-the-match but O’Gara’s ability to kick to the corners and nail his second half penalties proved equally important.
Not to be outdone, Connacht made it a perfect weekend for the competing Irish provinces by virtue of an exciting 23-20 Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-final victory over Bourgoin at the Sportsground in Galway. Their reward is a semi-final meeting with another French side Toulon at home.