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Dublin footballers through to final, hurlers in uphill fight

By Kieran Rooney

DUBLIN, somewhat remarkably, are in with a chance of contesting both the National Football League and the National Hurling League finals going into the final series of games.

The footballers are are already in the final after Alan Brogan's last gasp goal gave them a 2-10 to 0-13 Croke Park success over Down. On the same Saturday night bill, the hurlers also managed a late rally to draw 1-17 to 3-11 with league leaders Kilkenny.

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Consequently, they lie third in the table, on eight points, the same mark as second placed Galway going next Sunday's final series of games. Their points difference is practically identical, but should Galway beat Waterford away next weekend, they will go though to the final.

That's based on the fact that they won the head to head encounter with Dublin. Still, anything can still happen in what is proving to be a very open National League hurling campaign.

The one thing you can surely predict with any real degree of certainty is that Kilkenny will make the decider. They are now a point clear at the top and will be strong favourites to get the better of lowly Offaly at Nowlan Park next weekend.

While the Dubs hurlers face a tough trip to Cork, their footballers will have nothing to play for when they travel to Galway. They have already achieved their aim of a league decider following another exciting contest, this time getting the better of Down.

Once again, not everything was perfect. In fact, they trailed Down by a point as the game went into injury time. But the Brogan brothers, Bernard and Alan, then combined to send the 35,264 crowd into reptures.

Star turn Bernard had come on as a second half substitute. He responded by landing a vital 71st minute point to bring Dublin level, before sending in a cross from the left which Down midfielder Kalum King spilled.

Alan Brogan was on quickly on hand to send the ball into the back of the net. Job done, Dublin are four points clear of the pack going into the final game, and in their first league final since 1999.

Down boss James McCartan believes they are the real deal, ranking them along with Cork and Kerry as the country's three top teams, but the Dubs boss Pat Gilroy, quite sensibly, is trying to play down the hype.

"There are still a lot of things to get right," argued Gilroy. "But our application was very good tonight and I'm certainly a lot happier with the way we defended compared to the Mayo game."

Gilroy will also recognize that the football wasn't always of the highest standard as the team's found it difficult to cope with each others' style. Furthermore, the heavy rain made it very difficult at times.

It was all square, 1-5 to 0-8 at the interval, and there was never much in it during the second half. When Martin Clarke and Conor Maginn pointed to give Down their lead going into the closing minutes, it looked as if the Dubs winning run could be at a close, but that wasn't taking into account the Brogan brothers dramatic late contribution.

Prior to Sunday, Cork looked a sure bet to play Dublin in the league final, but a surprise away 1-13 to 0-14 defeat to Mayo at Castlebar has complicated matters. Now they must win their final game at home to Armagh next Sunday.

It was an important win for a Mayo side, as the victory means that they are certain of Division One football next season.

Kerry are on the same points mark as Cork after beating Monaghan by 1-14 to 0-11 at Inniskeen. Declan O'Sullivan contributed 1-2 as Kerry, for the most part, were much too good but Monaghan did restore some pride with an improved second half performance.

Unfortunately though, they will now be fighting to avoid relegation in the final outing at home to Mayo next Sunday. The reason is that other results did not go their way, particularly Mayo's win over Cork and bottom side Galway's first victory by 1-20 to 0-18 over Armagh at the Athletic Grounds.

This was a real surprise. But Galway deserved their success after going behind by four points early on. They were hugely improved with Gary Sice, Joe Bergin and Paul Gilroy making major contributions.

At least they have given themselves a chance of avoiding the drop. The will now face Dublin at home in their final game.

Donegal still lead the way in Division Two following a 1-17 to 1-8 victory over Antrim, while Wexford and Offaly head Division Three, and Roscommon top Division Four.

On the hurling front, the Dublin-Kilkenny draw wasn't the only game that produced real drama. But it was perhaps the most intriguing, if only because fans are still probably trying to decide whether the Dublin hurling side is the real deal.

So far, they have done remarkably well. Their main problem seems to be their ability to shoot so may wides. That cost them victory over Galway, and on Saturday night against Kilkenny, they were at it again hitting 17 wides.

Still, their manager Anthony Daly was greatly heartened by a display which saw them hold Kilkenny scoreless for the final 16 minutes and draw level with a point from Paul Ryan in the fourth minute of injury time.

"Belief is a huge thing," remarked Daly. "Obviously, championship hurling will be a step up again but I think we have the type of hurler who can step up."

Kilkenny boss Brian Cody was probably entitled to feel a bit disappointed, having seen his side score three goals to go clear through Matt Ruth (two) and Eddie Brennan, but he wasn't making a big deal of it. Most importantly, he pointed out, Kilkenny are still in a great position to make the final when they take on Offaly next Sunday.

There's a real battle for that other final spot. Galway remain in second spot, but they will need to pick up considerably from Sunday's 4-23 to 1-14 home defeat at the hands of Tipperary.

This was Tipp's best performance since they won the All-Ireland, with Shane Bourke giving wonderful scoring exhibition to finish with 3-4. They were on top all over the pitch against a Galway outfit that fell well below their normal standards.

Neither were Cork at their best when they went down to a shock 1-16 to 1-15 at the hands of Wexford at Wexford Park. But credit must go to the home side whose battling display has given them a chance of avoiding relegation.

That won't be easy as they travel to Tipperary in their final outing but at least they have something to play for. Offaly are also still in danger of relegation after a narrow 2-19 to 1-19 loss at the hands of Waterford at O'Connor Park.

The key was a somewhat fortunate Brian O'Sullivan Waterford goal in the second half. Elsewhere, Limerick are four points clear in Division Two after beating Kerry by 1-24 to 0-9, but second placed Clare went down to a surprise 3-16 to 3-13 defeat at the hands of Laois.


Munster end Leinster's run

An ankle injury to Paul O'Connell apart, Munster must have been delighted with their effort in managed to overcome Leinster 24-23 in a dramatic Magners League encounter at Thomond Park.

Munster, after all, had lost their previous five meetings with Leinster. Furthermore, they seemed to be heading for another loss when they trailed 20-9 at the interval of Saturday's encounter.

But sheer will power, a great display from the pack, and the accurate boot of Ronan O'Gara got them home. O'Gara landed seven penalties, the last of which was put over from close to the touchline in the final minute.

That's what he does in those pressurized circumstances. The out-half kicked six out of seven with substitute Paul Warwick getting Munster's other points with a penalty.

To be fair, O'Gara's rival for the Irish No 10 spot, Jonathan Sexton was also in top goalkicking form landing six out of seven. That included a conversion of the night's only try from Shane Horgan after some superb play by Isa Nacewa in the first half.

Leinster will undoubtedly feel that they were hard done by with some of the English referee Andrew Small's decisions. But the important thing for them is that they take the lessons from the game and use them for Saturday night's Heineken Cup quarter-final against Leicester.

One of them is that you have to deal with pressure when things don't go you way. Leinster, having played some marvelous rugby in the first half, allowed the heated Thomond Park atmosphere get to them in the second period.

From Munster's point of view, it was vital they secured a victory over Leinster. Munster coach Tony McGahern admitted that he was "sick to death" hearing about Leinster's five match winning run.

He felt that his team's physicality at the breakdown was the key to their success. Either way, Munster are still well clear of the pack at the top of the table, leading second placed Ulster by 12 points.

They can already prepare for a home semi-final, but Leinster face a battle. They currently lie fourth, three points behind Ulster, and one adrift of the Ospreys, while the Cardiff Blues are also very much in the running.

Elsewhere in the Magners League, Ulster maintained their chase for a semi-final spot by beating Llanelli Scarlets 20-18 at Ravenhill. Connacht bounced back from their defeat in Italy by defeating Edinburgh 27-23 at the Sportsground.