Cavan 1-10 Donegal 1-16
They are often derided as a 'one-man' and 'one-trick' team but Donegal proved there's more to them than Michael Murphy and blanket defence when opening their Ulster title defence with this facile win yesterday.
It was, almost literally, men against boys in Kingspan Breffni Park and Cavan's youngsters did quite well to finish within six points of them, three fewer than their meeting this time last year.
After the trauma of their mid-season management switch Cavan were a giant unknown beforehand but certainly came out fighting. Terry Hyland's young side threw down the gauntlet impressively, leading by two points within five minutes of throw-in and still level after the opening 20 minutes.
In contrast to a year earlier they came with a clear plan this time, and it was one that that was almost identical to Donegal's: flood the defence, leave two men up front and counter-attack quickly using good kick-passing.
It worked well for the first 15 minutes but then their inexperience told, they started making mistakes and quickly discovered the harsh lesson that copying Donegal is not quite as easy as it looks.
Cavan full-forward Eugene Keating eventually finished on five points from play, a very impressive tally against All Star full-back Neil McGee, but he posed Cavan's only consistent scoring threat and, after Keating scored their fourth point in the 13th minute, they didn't score again for the next 31 minutes.
Try as they might they quickly began to look like the Ulster rugby team a day earlier: able to bravely battle their way as far as their opponents' '45' but then repeatedly foundering on the phenomenal defensive bulwark in front of them.
As their heads dropped and Donegal's superior skill, fitness and decision-making took over, the inevitable happened, the visitors pulled three points clear and then Paddy McBrearty was taken down for a 31st-minute penalty which Colm McFadden calmly slotted.
That sent them in six points up (1-7 to 0-4) at half-time and they extended it to nine only for a Cavan penalty, scored by substitute Niall McDermott with 10 minutes left, to halt their gallop.
The home side, heavy with U-21s of the last three years, battled valiantly till the end but the result was never in doubt.
This game proved that Donegal can attack as well as defend -- their 1-16 included 11 points from play. In Murphy's absence, Leo McLoone started in attack and McFadden did well with the place-kicking, while four points came from midfield.
To counter-attack as well as Donegal do at times demands huge skill, vision and fitness and they had buckets of all three, with Mark McHugh and Paddy McBrearty working tirelessly as link-men.
Cavan, who added current U-21s Killian Clarke and Jason McLoughlin to their starters before throw-in at the expense of John McCutcheon and Niall Smith, tried desperately to contain their running game but often looked like they were juggling mercury
"It is hard to break them down, they come at you in waves, moving the ball in twos and threes," said Hyland.
"That's why we set ourselves up (defensively) in the first half, but to do that you had to be pretty physical and again we're not at that level yet."
The penalty, he agreed, changed everything. Trailing so badly Cavan had to throw caution to the wind and with Donegal taking their foot off the pedal in the final quarter, Keating, McDermott and David Givney capitalised on the space they then found.
Givney's midfield partner Gearoid McKiernan was just back from a long injury lay-off which didn't help but he, and this team, will improve and there is undoubtedly talent there that should be given time to flourish.
But they met a team yesterday who are much further into their development and look uber-focused on retaining their title.
Karl Lacey's white boots danced a jig at times and Donegal's half-backs and midfield dominated when it mattered most.
Rory Kavanagh, captaining Donegal on his 100th appearance, admitted expectations yesterday added to their task but manager Jim McGuinness was adamant that the occasion, the opposition or their own status will never put any additional pressure on them.
"Defending champions means zero," he stressed. "It's irrelevant who we play any day, we know ourselves what we want to do, we're gauging ourselves against our own criteria. We're trying to move the thing forward," he said of the flak they often take for their defensive style.
"Not all games are played completely defensively or completely offensively, there's a lot that has to happen to make a complete performance come together," he noted. "For good periods today we got what we wanted but there is stuff to work on."
Scorers - Donegal: C McFadden 1-6 (5f, 1-0 pen), R Kavanagh 0-3, M McHugh, L McCloone 0-2 each, N McGee, F McGlynn, N Gallagher 0-1 each. Cavan: E Keating 0-5, N McDermott 1-1 (1-0 pen, 1f), D Givney 0-2, J Brady, G McTiernan 0-1.
Donegal - P Durcan 7; P McGrath 8, N McGee 6, Declan Walsh 7; A Thompson 6, K Lacey 8, F McGlynn 8; R Kavanagh (capt) 9, N Gallagher 6; R Bradley 5, M McHugh 9, David Walsh 7; P McBrearty 8, C McFadden 7, L McLoone 7. Subs: M O'Reilly 8 for Bradley (24), M McElhinney for David Walsh (66), D Molloy for Gallagher (69).
Cavan - J Reilly 6; K Clarke 6, P O'Reilly (capt) 7, K Meehan 6; J McLoughlin 7, D Reilly 5, M McKeever 5; D Givney 8, G McKiernan 6; F Flanagan 5, R Flanagan 6, R Maloney-Derham 5; J Brady 7, E Keating 9, B Fitzpatrick 5. Subs: T Corr 6 for Maloney-Derham (h-t), N McDermott 7 for Fitzpatrick (h-t) , N Smith 7 for Flanagan (39), K Tierney 6 for McKeever (55), R Galligan for Brady (66).
Ref - C Reilly (Meath)