Royals fighting to get back to the top table

by Aaron Dunne
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The Leinster Championship has been monopolised by one county for getting on two decades now and, amid continued debate around what feels like constant restructuring of the All-Ireland Championship, the very future of the provincial series seems in permanent peril.

But old rivalries die hard. Meath and Dublin appear to exist in two completely different orbits in the year 2024.
Dublin are the defending All-Ireland champions and winners of seven of the last nine Sam Maguires.
Meath, on the other hand, a county rich in football success and tradition, are in the process of dragging themselves up by the bootstraps after a period in the footballing doldrums. Their Tailteann Cup win in 2023 delivering some much needed silverware for a trophy cabinet than may have spent much of the last decade draped under a dust-proof sheet.
The Boys in Blue have won no less that 19 of the last 22 Leinster titles. Meath’s last came in 2010 – a controversial win against Louth after a semi-final victory over Dublin. The Royals had won 20 more before that. From 1986 to 2001, Meath never went more than four seasons without a provincial title. After Dublin, the undisputed ‘other’ power in Leinster.
But as Meath walk straight into what many assume will be certain defeat in their provincial quarter-final meeting with Dessie Farrell’s side at Croke Park on Sunday, they’ll go there with hope in their hearts and the knowledge that history at least used to be somewhat on their side.

“We’re entering the Leinster Championship to try and win it and we’re as excited for it as we would any other championship game,” Meath forward Matthew Costello told RTÉ Sport at the launch of the AIB GAA Football Championship.
“A provincial championship is still something every player would love to win. When you retire, that provincial championship medal would be something you’d hold very close to your heart.
“Leinster might be a little bit different, Munster might be the same, it’s kind of the same teams winning it every year. For the rest of the teams that’s tough to take and I’m sure for the supporters, it’s very tough to see.”
Meath will be in the All-Ireland series either way owing to last year’s success in the second-tier competition. So in many ways, Sunday represents a free crack at the bully on the block.

“We’re looking forward to a day out in Croke Park and hopefully there’ll be more after this Sunday,” Costello said.
“We’re playing arguably the best team in the country, it will be great preparation for the All-Ireland series anyway.
“There obviously is a Meath-Dublin rivalry. Whatever position we’re in, whatever position they’re in, it always feels like there’s a bit more to the game, especially in the week leading up to it and the day of it, there’s always a lot of new fans there and they’re very excited to see how you get on.”
“There is that little bit of a historical feel to it. The last few years it hasn’t gone the way Meath fans would want, so you’re nearly using it as a barometer to see how much the work that you’ve put in over preseason and the league campaign shows and can you get a really good performance against them.

“We’ve seen Meath teams in the past get a good performance against them, run them close. Unfortunately, Dublin have been able to go on and win. But you want to see it as an advantage to take on a top team and put on a performance in Croke Park. A win would top it all off to be honest.
Royals legend Colm O’Rourke gave up the comfort of the RTÉ TV studio to take the reins at his old county heading into the 2023 season and immediately declared his project a ‘long-term’ kind of deal. Meath were not expected to climb right back to the top table immediately, there were many years of underachievement to address first.
As well as O’Rourke himself, the Meath backroom team knows a thing or two about beating Dublin. O’Rourke won seven Leinster titles on his way to four All-Irelands during a lengthy playing career. His selectors Trevor Giles and Stephen Bray also enjoyed provincial success in their playing days.

“They have a good wealth of experience, they know how to win big games,” Costello reminded us. Trevor going back to the 90s, winning All-Irelands and stuff, and Stephen Bray, Meath’s last All Star [2010], won a Leinster championship. He was a big part of that, a big leader.
“So they’ve brought in a gameplan that they’ve been able to communicate to us quite easily. It suits us, we’re quite direct but also we showed last year we’re maybe a little bit open at the back. So this year, with a little bit of experience, we were able to smarten up, tighten up and take control of our defensive structure.
“It seems to be working for the most part, it’s still a work in progress. But it’s definitely getting better.”

Conor McGill of Meath in action against Dublin players Cormac Costello, left, and Dean Rock during the Leinster GAA Football Senior Championship Semi-Final at Croke Park in 2022.
Pic: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

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