In championship boxing, when a challenger steps into the ring for an attempt to take a belt from the king he has to "take the great man on".
It is never enough on a judge’s scorecard for a pretender to try to win on the outside or to hope to do enough on the counter. To take victory, the underdog will always have to be aggressive – otherwise the champion prevails.
The weekend’s all Division One clash between next door neighbours Monaghan and Cavan was an intriguing clash of styles and attitude throughout the 80 minutes of play.
The game summarised the importance of every facet of preparation that players, coaches and support staff now invest into finding a performance on any given day but above all else, it magnified the impact that controlling your mentality plays in any contest.
When the Monaghan players reflect in the mirror on their collective performance and another opportunity missed, an inescapable and universal truth is staring back at them; there is a threshold of preparation beyond which coaches cannot pass and beyond which players must take responsibility.
Ultimately, when players step onto the grass they don’t only have personal performance goals. They are also representative of the body of work the squad have done to put the lucky players in the jerseys and should feel bound by collective responsibility and commitment to their shared goals.
As a team that have been lauded so often for their indomitable spirit in recent years, they must also accept the weight of failure to show up for the duel when challenged.
Cavan took Monaghan on from the outset. They planned to be aggressive, to push them back and to pour energy into supporting their own attack and find out how ready for a scrap the favourites were.
Mickey Graham’s men got their mentality as close to right as it can be throughout the contest. The Breffni men had to be acutely aware that they needed to start with intent and put their neighbours on the back foot to get ahead. Monaghan are an uncomfortable team to chase in any game as they counter so well.
The challengers attacked the opening minutes with aggressive competition for the ball, direct running and obvious belief in themselves. That approach pushed Monaghan back on their heels and created room to play, propelling them in front at a gallop.
In the story of the game the next stanza to be expected would be the Monaghan response. We waited, and waited.
Instead, the Farney men – no strangers to the warrior spirit – remained passive.
They stood off their opponents and put no pressure on the ball, tackled tamely and were essentially bystanders for their own demise. It wasn’t until the second half begun that Monaghan finally roused to stagger into the battle.
As we have come to expect, Malachy O’Rourke’s team fought manfully after they had equipped themselves with a collective attitude that gave them a chance but, with a seven-point half time deficit to chase, the hill ahead was steep.
LACK OF FOCUS
It is a very fair – and fundamental – question to ask the Monaghan players why they were so poorly mentally prepared for the battle Saturday evening.
The wake for this generation has begun in some quarters but the evidence is that physical capacity Is not the problem – rather something eminently more fixable
This was a local squabble that carries the same parochial baggage as any border derby in Ireland and one that conjures up memories of trench warfare in the past. As importantly, what was also at stake was a perceived more oiled door to an Ulster Final and, consequently, the more direct route to a Super 8 return. These are season and career-defining matches.
There has been speculation – not least from their own people – that Monaghan’s race is finally run. The wake for this generation has begun in some quarters but the evidence is that physical capacity is not the problem – rather something eminently more fixable.
THE GREAT PUZZLE
How can a team with Monaghan’s experience and at least as much talent as their opponents be exposed so badly by high intensity?
Cavan produced an opening 20 minutes of tempo in possession and hustle out if it that must have burned both the limbs and lungs of their players incessantly. Monaghan just couldn’t respond because they weren’t prepared to suffer the pain of work rate in the same way their neighbours were and the longer the hunger deficit prevailed the more inevitable a Cavan win became.
Finally, Monaghan produced a similar concerted effort in the opening twenty minutes of the second half. Abandoning their sweeper, they went after Cavan all over the pitch – as they had to – as the central pillar in a plan to recover the game.
The template for success was struck but it couldn’t be replicated with any great consistency
Their revised approach was exemplified in the 39th minute when Ryan Wylie raced some 50 yards from a cover position to close down Cavan’s unsuspecting Gerard Smith as he meandered aimlessly with the ball towards the half way line.
From the turnover Monaghan broke and McManus had his first one on one situation of the day and his opening point from play. The template for success was struck but it couldn’t be replicated with any great consistency.
The great frustration for Malachy O’Rourke as he reviews the wreckage ahead of a qualifier rebuild will be that – not for the first time in recent years – his team lost this game in the area of mental preparation.
It remains a puzzle of preparation for championship matches how favourites can be found short of the pitch of battle from the outset.
There is, however, no mystery to the gaps in this Monaghan team’s performances over recent years. Place them in a Super Eight series or any challenge approaching monumental in their minds and the adrenaline pulses.
Monaghan undoubtedly have a reservoir of talent and the game craft to beat any team in the country on a given day.
However, if this group of players aren’t able to summon the dragon and attack games spitting fire the sum of their parts becomes very ordinary. On Saturday evening they were outfought. That hurts a proud team more than any beating.
Cavan prepared diligently in every facet of their gameplan for Monaghan on Saturday evening and admirably weathered the inevitable response from their neighbours to stand their ground.
If the Farney men are to claw their way back towards the business end of the championship, they have a clear and consistent weakness to address that has nothing to do with age or training miles; far too often they just haven’t turned up for the scrap.