Shamrock Rovers took a huge step towards retaining their league title with a crushing victory over nearest challengers Dundalk at Tallaght Stadium.

Stephen Bradley's side came into the game on the back of a 4-0 first leg defeat to Ferencvaros in their Europa League play-off tie in Hungary 72 hours earlier but three goals on the break from Aaron Greene, Richie Towell and Rory Gaffney ensured there was no European hangover ahead of this Thursday’s second leg.

Dundalk came into the game with a chance of closing the gap at the top of the table to a single point, albeit with a game more played, but their inexperience showed as their high line was exposed time and time again by a Rovers side who never really had to get out of second gear.

Stephen O’Donnell’s side dominated possession on the night and had chances of their own but the concession of three almost identical goals on the break meant that they never really threatened an upset.

As it stands Rovers - who will still have to overcome the distractions of a European group stage campaign to ensure a third title in-a-row - have a seven point lead over Dundalk at the top, with a game in hand still to play, while they are 10 clear of Derry City in third.

There’s still work for them to do with 10 games to go but this felt like a pivotal night for the Hoops.

Both sides had early chances with Ronan Finn firing over after taking a Lee Grace cross on his chest inside the box after just 40 seconds before John Martin flicked a header wide from Steven Bradley’s cross at the other end on five minutes.

The visitors did much of the pressing after that but were badly exposed when Rovers broke to take the lead on 13 minutes. Daniel Cleary’s ball out of defence allowed Gaffney charge away from Robbie McCourt down the left with the striker squaring to Greene for the simplest of tap-ins.

Gaffney would go close himself nine minutes later when he was given too much time to spin in the box to get a shot away but it was straight at Nathan Shepperd, who would also deny him from a flick on on the half hour mark.

Ronan Finn of Shamrock Rovers in action against Darragh Leahy of Dundalk

A key moment in the game then came three minutes later when John Martin broke away for Cleary to slot past Alan Mannus, only to have the goal chalked off for a foul on the former Dundalk defender.

From the resultant free kick, Cleary picked out Greene in acres of space with the 32-year-old turning supplier on this occasion as he rolled the ball across to Towell for another tap-in. Towell, who scored 54 goals in 126 appearances for the Louth side between 2013 and 2015, was then booked in the aftermath for celebrating in front of the away fans.

To their credit, Dundalk refused to throw in the towel and had a number of chances to pull a goal back before the break with Mannus saving from Martin and Greg Sloggett before Lee Grace did well to deny Martin with a sliding tackle as he pulled the trigger as other efforts from Alfie Lewis and Keith Ward were blocked.

Bradley would also drag a shot wide seven minutes after the restart before Gary O’Neill wasted a chance to wrap the game up two minutes later when he fired straight at Shepperd after being slipped in by Gaffney.

Mannus then had to be at his best on 65 minutes to claw away a free kick from Ward at full stretch that looked destined for the top left hand corner.

That proved another crucial moment as Rovers wrapped the game up with another scintillating break two minutes later with Greene breaking from half way before squaring to Gaffney, who finished in style.

That was the pair’s last involvement with Gaffney’s replacement, Aidomo Emakhu, going close to a fourth in the 77th minute when he broke on the right only to be denied by a decent stop from Shepperd.

Robbie Benson then went close with an effort from range five minutes later that was brilliantly touched around the post by Mannus, who ensured his 12th clean sheet of the season and his side’s 13th with another couple of top saves from David McMillan and Joe Adams at the death.

Shamrock Rovers: Alan Mannus; Sean Hoare, Daniel Cleary (Justin Ferizaj 79), Lee Grace; Ronan Finn (Neil Farrugia 59), Dylan Watts (Sean Kavanagh 68), Gary O'Neill, Andy Lyons; Richie Towell, Rory Gaffney (Aidomo Emakhu 69), Aaron Greene (Jack Byrne 68).

Dundalk: Nathan Shepperd; Lewis Macari, Sam Bone, Robbie McCourt (Keith Ward 26), Darragh Leahy (John Mountney 73); Greg Sloggett (Joe Adams 64), Alfie Lewis; Robbie Benson, Steven Bradley, Ryan O’Kane (Runar Hauge HT); John Martin (David McMillan 64).

Referee: Rob Harvey (Dublin).