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St Oliver Plunkett’s/Er Vs Castleknock : Preview

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When Brazilian World Cup winning manager Luiz Filipe Scolari took over Chelsea in 2010, at one particular Man United press conference, Alex Ferguson received a barrage of questions with the insinuation that, now that the great Scolari had arrived at Chelsea, the league was a foregone conclusion.

With a rye smile Ferguson pointed out something along the lines that he had already won ten league titles with United (in sixteen years) and had just won his second Champions’ League. Feigning bemusement, he questioned, “am I missing something”?

You couldn’t help but wonder if Castleknock’s Lar Norton was put in a room right now to answer questions which seem to represent the a largely prevailing sentiment, represented by the bookie’s odds, that Plunkett’s are large favourites to win on Saturday, that he might make a similar response.

Plunkett’s/Er and Castleknock met in the first round last year and having coughed up an early goal and couple of points, Knock went on to win by a goal. After what many assumed to have been a bad night at the races for Plunkett’s, Castleknock went onto the final and were within a goal-line clearance of drawing level, a man up, with less than fifteen minutes left.

They have the most technically correctly structured zonal defence in Dublin, and the players with the brains to correctly apply it.

As was the case with Chelsea in 2008 with Scolari, there is a widely prevailing sentiment that now that Paul Curran is in charge of Plunkett’s, and that they’ve beaten Ballyboden, that they’re invincible, at least against this supposedly weaker side.

Make no mistake about it, Curran has proven himself as one of the top managers in the county, and potentially in the country. You could be forgiven for thinking, however, that he had just taken over from Mickey Mouse!

It’s worth noting that he has replaced Pat McDonagh and Paul Clarke who inherited a side who had been beaten by the unseeded Balinteer St. John’s in the first round the previous year. In their first season they defied the odds twice to reach a final through the toughest of toughest of draws, beating Croke’s, Curran’s hotly favoured Ballymun and Jude’s. They lost by a single point to two All-Ireland champions in two years before Castleknock knocked them out last year.

Am I missing something?

Yes, Knock didn’t exactly blow Templeogue/Synge Street out of the water in the first round, but TSS set up and defend very well. They’re typically not the type of side you blow out of the water easily. They’re more a side that you grind down, and they did, never really looking like they’d be beaten.

tss castleknock 3

Castleknock ground down TSS

There’s no doubting it, Plunkett’s win against Boden answers a lot of questions, and certainly catapults them back to being one of the favourites. There were, however, three tactical gains they made against Boden, that I simply can’t see them gaining against Knock.

A) From the time Tom Haniffan went off, the cover in front of Plunkett’s full forward line simply wasn’t anything like as efficient as Castleknock’s was, systematically, last year.

B) The manner in which Boden came to have a sweeper/libero set up represented a textbook example from a section of my upcoming book “Understanding Gaelic Football” titled “Textbook Libero flaw”. With his man “minding the house” Gareth Smyth was allowed to roam unmarked between the two 45’s, got on a plethora of ball and was the fulcrum for Plunkett’s. I simply can’t see Knock allowing Smyth or anybody else having a free roll in that part of the field.

If you want somebody in your full back line to mind the house when a full/corner forward roams, the only balanced tactical thing to to is to sacrifice a forward to pick up the roamer, leaving the opposition’s spare man in their own defence, not running free in the centre.

C) Something which alludes to the key element in this game ; after initial success on the short kick-out, which saw them take a four one lead in the opening ten minutes, Boden lumped kick-out after kick-out on top of Ross McConnell’s head, playing into the hands of one of the best fielders in Dublin with, Paul Galvin, possibly the best break winner in the country, underneath him. There’s simply no way Knock will do this.

plunketts 6 nesty smyth

Nesty had the run of the park in the first round

Key to their slaying of Jude’s last year was that that they sat off them on kick-outs, giving them a choice to go short and have to break down a fourteen man zonal defence, or go long and be swamped under the break. Jude’s who had scored eight points directly off long kick-outs against Croke’s in the previous round, didn’t score one against Knock. It’s difficult to imagine they’ll do anything differently on Saturday.

Of course, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Those three tactical elements were in Plunketts’ favour against Boden, but there’s nothing to say that if Knock choke those elements off, that Plunkett’s won’t get at them another way.

They have such an embarrassing array of riches up front that you find yourself asking, what do they do with Paul Brogan (who I assume was injured against Boden) if he’s available? A straight swap for Darragh Brogan at wing forward? Then who comes off when Alan Brogan is introduced?

 

plunletts 11 alan brogan

Brogan came on before half time against Boden

In tactical and technical terms there are two ways I’d divvy up the sides. Firstly, you look at how many players each side have that you could expect to carve out a score from nothing. By my reckoning, Plunkett’s have six. Bernard Brogan, Tomás Corrigan or “Nesty” Smyth could kick a point over in the blink of an eye, surrounded by defenders (though an injury carrying Tomás Corrigan due to play for Fermanagh next Sunday is a factor).

You’d fancy the chances of Alan Brogan or Paul Galvin to “pick and poke” their way through a zonal defence. And Ross McConnell could open up a zonal defence with one forty yard pass if it’s on.

By my reckoning, Castleknock have one player with that technical, attacking ability. Ciarán Kilkenny!

Plunkett’s also have two of the best line breakers in the game in the unsung hero that is Conor Walsh, and Paul Brogan (if he pays).

plunketts 11 paul brogan

Who does Paul Brogan replace if he’s fit?

But if you divvy things up another way, it’s Castleknock who have the ascendancy. Working on the basis that O’Brien is back from injury, you can assume that Graham Hannigan will go back to wing back. That leaves an outrageously athletic half back line of Hannigan, Ross Mullins and Tom Shiels.

If they go with Kilkenny and Shane Boland at midfield, you have two more athletic animals. Assume that Dessie Carlos plays on the wing with Ben Galvin in the centre, you have two more in the middle eight. That’s seven out of their middle eight who you’d fancy to be toe to toe with most Dublin seniors over twenty yards, or over five hundred. If it was up to me, for this particular game, I’d draft Mikey Galvin from 13 to 12  to make it eight athletic animals.

Even without Alan Brogan playing, based on the Ballyboden line-out, I’d say that Plunkett’s have Conor Walsh and Darragh Brogan on the two wings and David Kelly at wing back who tick those boxes. Craig Dunleavy might not be far off.

To that end, basing things on the chess principle that if the player with more in their armoury is allowed to dictate things, for me it’s Plunkett’s who have to knock Castleknock out of their stride, not vice versa.

Boland and Kilkenny dictated the pace from the centre

The outrageously fit midfielders, Boland and Kilkenny

But like a chess player losing the centre of the board, but sitting with a potentially attacking bishop, hidden in behind a potentially attacking knight, if Castleknock make the slightest tactical miscalculation, or if Curran outmanoeuvres them tactically, they could be torn to shreds by the best forward line in club football in the country.

To that end, for me, this game is going to be won and lost on kick-outs. Knock’s whole game plan is based on getting off the kick-outs asap, which is a double-edged sword. A) They get a lot of scores from this route. B) Ala Jim Gavin’s Dublin, it allows them to run less athletic sides into the ground.

They got four of these off in the first half of the final last year and scored three points. The one they didn’t score was the only one where they didn’t breach “the Killer Quarter”. When Vincent’s used clandestine measures to disrupt the quick kick early in the second half, the game went away from them.

If Castleknock can get these quick kicks off and consistently breach “the Killer Quarter”, I can’t see them being beaten.

So Plunkett’s will have to push up man on man, on the kick-outs, or drop off once they concede them in the full back line. Otherwise, I expect they’ll be eaten alive on Knock’s kick-outs and run into the ground.

Of course, it’s fine to plan to push up man on man in theory, but if they’ve just broken forward on the attack, will they have the legs to do it? Or will they have the legs to track back once Knock get the kick-outs off? How Curran hatches a plan for this will be key. If Plunkett’s force Knock long, and they even win 50/50, they could massacre them on their own kick-outs, and put the game beyond reach with scores from this source alone.

Castleknock allowed Jude's the short kick-out

Castleknock allowed Jude’s the short kick-out

Plunkett’s on the other hand, no more than Jude’s last year, by my reckoning, don’t/shouldn’t have the option to play quick, short kick-outs against Castleknock. It will mean playing the game at too high a tempo against the younger, fitter Castleknock.

With this dynamic at play, Croke’s never called Judes’ bluff last year and went out of their way to prevent them from playing quick, short kick-outs, they never wanted to kick in the first place. Castleknock called their bluff and reduced them to a blunt force.

Lar Norton’s right hand man, Kevin Stritch, prepares for oppositions with military detail and is as tactically incisive as you’ll find. There’s no way he won’t have made preparations for this.

For Knock to once again turn over what is a technically superior team, they’ll have to methodically plan who will mark each forward.

We can safely say that Tom Quinn who gave almost exemplary man-marking performances against Kevin McMenamon and Diarmuid Connolly last year, will man-mark Bernard Brogan. I make him a technically superior man marker to all of Dublin’s defenders, though slightly less pacey, so this dual will be as intriguing as it will be key.

vincents-castleknock-pic-12-connolly-quinn

Connolly never took the ball past Quinn/kicked a score

You can assume that Eoin O’Brien, assuming he’s back from injury, will then pick up whichever of Tomás Corrigan or Nesty Smyth starts, with Peter Sherry marking Leigh Herron or other at full forward.

You have to assume then that the bull like Mullins, in stature and personality, will pick up Paul Galvin. Expect fireworks! Key as Galvin was in the last round, it’s hard to imagine how he’ll track Mullins’ marauding runs fairly, without some sort of systematic back up.

That will leave the super athletic, man-marking  Graham Hannigan to try to scupper Plunketts’ key runner, Conor Walsh, leaving the equally athletic Tom Shiels on Darragh Brogan (or Paul Brogan if he starts). Again, assuming Alan Brogan comes off the bench, it’s difficult to see how he would track either Shiels or Hannigan when they try to get forward.

Then you’ll have Shane Boland and either James Sherry or Kilkenny in the middle on Craig Dunleavy and Ross McConnell. If it was my selection I’d go with Kilkenny for this one, but I suspect it will be Sherry, at least intermittently.

Up front, it’s difficult to know who’ll line out where for Plunkett’s, though it’s less significant. My suspicion is that if Castleknock get the requisite amount of scores, most will come from overlaps.

castleknock-judes-pic-14

Knock over-ran Jude’s late on

To paraphrase the wisdom of Kevin McStay when Dublin were overwhelming favourites against a struggling Kerry in 2009, “when all is said and done, you can expect the team with the better players to win. Kerry have the better players, so I think they’ll win”. And they did. Undoubtedly, Plunkett’s have the better players.

But if I could add a sub-clause to McStay’s wisdom, it would be that “when all is said and done, you can expect the best and most athletic and intelligent players to win”.

That’s not to say that Castleknock are more intelligent. But they have the intelligence to make their superior athleticism count.

I predicted Plunkett’s would be beaten by Ballymun in 2014. They weren’t. I predicted they’d be beaten by Ballyboden this year. They weren’t. I’m loathe to go against them again, especially when the prevailing sentiment is that they’re strong favourites.

In what I see as virtually a 50/50 game, there are a couple of elements going against Knock. Of last year’s corner backs, both O’Brien and Bourke missed the first round through injury. Apparently O’Brien is back, but not Bourke. It’s not ideal.

Apparently Dessie Carlos was simply left off against Templeogue, alluding to form significantly less than last year’s. By the same token, key marksman Kevin Kindlon didn’t start in the first round. It begs questions about form.

By my (possible mis)calculation, Ciarán Kilkenny will just have finished up gruelling exams/finals in St. Pat’s. It’s not ideal.

And, of course, there’s the possibility of “Leicester City syndrome”. Knock didn’t get to the final last year because they are individually the second best side in the county. They got there because they have enough top players in key positions, are the best side in Dublin combining athleticism and the ability to hold possession, and they’re a bloody diligent gang.

Castleknock began to play completely on their terms

Knock are masters of possession

If a handful start to believe they’re stars now, and that diligence is eroded, that GPS analysis would show that their distance and pace run/run when the opposition have the ball, is down (as it was with Leicester this year until they had a new manager this year), they can forget about it.

With those few niggling doubts, forced to call, I’d just about say Plunkett’s. Though I stand corrected on my views on Na Fianna’s odds to beat Vincent’s yesterday being the best value you’ll get all year. At 3/1 for Castleknock to win, that bet isn’t the best you’ll find this year. It’s the steal of the century!

By Stephen O’Meara

@somearagaa

@grassrootsgaa

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