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Dean Rock: There used to be a ferocity to the Dublin-Meath rivalry. Now we don’t even see competitiveness

I was on the bench when Meath last beat Dublin. It was impossible to foresee the different trajectories both counties would take

The morning after Dublin picked up their first National League win this year, I was in the car heading for Kiltipper Road. I took the M50, came off at exit 12, and followed the road all the way up to the home ground of Thomas Davis.

It was mid-February and I was travelling to play in Ballymun’s first league game of the season. The previous evening at Croke Park, Dublin had beaten Roscommon.

The consensus at the time was that Dublin needed to win that match after losing their opening two fixtures, but events from Croke Park certainly weren’t my main focus of concern on the road to Tallaght.

The nervous energy was generated solely by a desire for us to start our league campaign competitively against Thomas Davis. Making my way across the city, with the Sunday morning traffic light and the club season about to get under way, everything about it felt right. My focus had changed, almost unknowingly.

When I retired from Dublin in January, I was content with the decision. Nothing in the months since has changed that feeling. I had my time. I still haven’t watched last year’s All-Ireland final.

And, to be honest, there were no pangs of regret this past week as Dublin prepared for Sunday’s championship opener against Meath. The Dublin-Meath rivalry used to be huge, but the reality is that during my senior intercounty career it didn’t really exist.

I grew up in Garristown, right on the Dublin-Meath border, next to Ardcath. So, from a young age I was aware of the rivalry, the ferocity of it, the emotions it stirred in people, at times it was almost hatred among the supporters and indeed some of the players.

Dad got his collarbone broken in a collision with Liam Harnan during the 1986 Leinster final. The physicality of games between the counties during the 80s and 90s was often brutal.

But that was then. Now? It’s not even so much the lack of a rivalry, it’s more that for years games between the counties have lacked competitiveness. I was on the bench in 2010 when Meath last beat Dublin. It was impossible to foresee the dramatically different trajectories both counties were about to embark upon.

Dublin versus Meath is a game that should feel different for Dublin players, but I don’t think it does any longer. That kind of edge for Dublin players now comes when they play Mayo or Kerry or indeed Derry – competitiveness between teams breeds a natural rivalry.

Dublin have largely swatted aside Meath teams for more than a decade at this stage. The average winning margin in championship games between the sides since 2010 is slightly more than 11 points.

And yet every time we went out to play them there was a kind of Meath stubbornness about the players, in many ways tradition had hard-wired them to believe they always had a shot. But the games mostly took the same course, Dublin building an insurmountable lead and putting the outcome beyond doubt well before full-time.

I have no doubt Meath will arrive in Croke Park on Sunday believing this will be the day they turn it around, but I am interested to see if they can bring a level of maturity and game-smarts that hasn’t always been visible in recent years.

Meath have a dangerous full-forward line in James Conlon, Mathew Costello and Jordan Morris. Dublin will have to go man to man with those three and that will create opportunities for Colm O’Rourke’s men. Because those forwards need to be followed, it will provide chances for the trio to manipulate the Dublin defenders in ways to create space for Meath runners to break in behind.

I think they are going to have to score three or four goals to win, and their return of 3-19 against Longford – 2-18 from play – was impressive. The concern would be in the concession of 3-12 at Pearse Park, especially when seven days later you are playing Dublin in the wide open spaces of Croke Park.

If Meath need goals to win, then on the flip side, should Dublin snatch an early goal or two, then it will be a difficult afternoon for the men in green.

Dublin played a very high pressing game in the league final against Derry, which brings its risks, and obviously Mickey Harte and Gavin Devlin had done a huge amount of work to develop a kickout strategy which aimed for most of their long restarts to be put on top of the smaller guys in Dublin’s half-back line.

Derry looked to get flick-ons and at times, from a Dublin perspective, it was too easy for them to generate goalscoring chances. Both teams will have learned a lot from the league final.

Playing that high press in future, Dublin will need to shore up their defence when opposition kickouts do go long. I’d imagine a lot of focus on the training pitch has been put on that over the last fortnight – working on the breaking ball, spotting the ghost runners in behind and tagging players breaking to ensure there are no needless goal chances allowed.

And while the league final won’t define Dublin’s season, and they will be mostly encouraged with how their campaign went, I’d imagine losing that game would have hurt the lads.

Dublin haven’t won a Division One final since 2018 (the title was shared in 2021), so it was a medal they would have wanted to win. I believe the short break provides them with an ideal opportunity to get back to Croke Park, try to right a few wrongs from that league final and put their season back on track.

Brian Fenton’s suspension is a disappointment for Dublin and it will give confidence to Meath, but I’m not sure it’s going to be enough to tilt the balance, or anything like that. Dessie Farrell might try use Fenton’s absence as a chance to get 45-50 minutes of game-time into James McCarthy around the middle of the field.

I’ll be hoping to get game-time myself on Saturday evening when Ballymun are at home to Clontarf in the league.

I’m a former intercounty footballer now, and that’s fine. I’m 34 and it’s almost like my club career is starting afresh. If the body allows, I’ll try hang in here until I’m 40.

The championship starts for Dublin this weekend. The league continues for Ballymun.

The show goes on.

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