Leinster display an appetite for battle

 

RAILWAY CUP holders Leinster asserted their dominion in decisive style in this year's semi final at Navan yesterday when they dismissed Ulster with a confident display of fast, physically imposing football.

All in all, it was a most enjoyable match and if Ulster were sleeping with the fishes a bit too long before the final whistle for temperatures to rise, the quality of the football all afternoon was high and the customarily minuscule attendance of around 1,000 stayed until the end.

To be fair to the northerners, theirs was an understrength team missing six All Ireland medallists from the side that lost so narrowly to Munster in last March's semifinal replay. Their headlong decline has taken them from a losing margin that day of one point to yesterday's 10-point eclipse.

Assistant manager Art McRory pointed out three reasons behind the defeat or at least the scale of it. Firstly, Ulster teams are no longer fired by the ravenous motivation to prove themselves as good as anyone. Four All Irelands took the edge off that hunger. Secondly, the absentee list was ultimately insupportable. McRory cited Peter Canavan's injury as a factor. Finally he accepted that the province is in transition and needs to rebuild.

Leinster's manager Mattie Kerrigan has streamlined the province's approach in the two years of his stewardship. On both occasions, the reigning All Ireland champions have been from the province and off on holidays during the preparation period. Kerrigan has largely built teams around excellent players from less successful counties.

Yesterday was a case in point. The selection featured three players from Louth and Kildare, two from Wicklow and Laois and one from Westmeath. As a team, Leinster were fluid and coherent. Their three goals were shared between Wicklow's Kevin O'Brien and Louth's Colin Kelly who ended the afternoon with 2-5. The Laois Louth midfield of Tony Maher and Seamus O'Hanlon was exceptional and prospered against the heavyweight pairing of Anthony Tohill, Derry, and Paul Brewster of Fermanagh.

The upper echelons of the province's caste system also chipped in, most notably with the display of last year's captain Paul Curran. The Dubliner was Texaco Footballer of the Year in 1995 and after a disappointing 96, gave notice yesterday that he is back in spectacular form.

Leinster wasted a good deal of chances. The early ones looked like being fatal as despite the authority of their success, the winners struggled mightily in the opening quarter and trailed by 0-2 to 1-5 after 16 minutes.

The goal was the first score of the match. In the second minute, Shane King found Mickey Linden, who slipped the cover and swept the ball into the net.

Despite a number of opportunities, Leinster at this stage lacked the opposition's ability to convert openings. That sharpness was largely courtesy of Donegal's Tony Boyle who fired over three first half points from play and gave Hugh Kenny a tricky time of it. But Linden and Ross Carr were also prowling about menacingly.

The winners' comeback was triggered by John Donaldson, the Louth wing back, who like his opposite wing Curran had a fine match, both at the back and going forward. He kicked a 19th minute point which launched an unanswered blast of 1-4.

The goal was conjured by Maher and O'Brien who put Johnny McDonald clear on goal. He was hauled down without apparent qualm by Gary Walsh and Kelly converted the penalty, to leave the half time score 1-6 each.

Up to the end of the third quarter, it was all still to play for, but with Leinster two points ahead, 1-9 to 1-7, the fatal blow was struck. Donaldson mis hit a shot for a point and it fell short into Gary Walsh's intended grasp, but the Donegal man was having a jumpy sort of day and he spilled the ball right into the path of the oncoming O'Brien who tapped it home.

Graham Geraghty's introduction in the 52nd minute immediately paid dividends as his run ended with Kelly cracking home Leinster's third goal.