Before a ball was pucked in Division 1B of the National Hurling League, Laois knew it was going to be a struggle. After the disaster that was last year, the county was at a low ebb, and with Teddy McCarthy having spent the winter months holding trials and trying to come up with a panel, they were already behind the other five teams in the group.
There has been much debate over the merits of how the National hurling leages are structured, but one thing which was patently obvious after Laois’ six games, is that they were not ready for this standard. We might like to think we belong amongst the teams which populate this Division, but at the moment, we don’t.
Laois were well beaten in four out of the five league-phase games, competing well with Antrim in the other before throwing away a healthy lead and losing by two. They at least rounded off the year well with a promising display on Sunday, but at the same time it raised as many questions as it answered.
Against Wexford, in the relegation playoff, Laois conceded five goals, more than they conceded in any other game this year. Overall, the defence has found itself under massive pressure this year, and, on average, Laois conceded just over 27 points per game. A statistic like that tells its own story, and it could only lead to one outcome: relegation.
To blame the seven men who lined out in jerseys numbered one to seven for a concession rate of scores like that isn’t really fair either. Try as Laois might, they don’t compete well enough all around the field to ease up some of the pressure on their often over-worked defence. Part of this, in recent games at least, is due to Sean Bourke playing as a seventh defender.
By doing this, Laois leave the opposition with a spare man in their defence, and so it gives them that bit more time to play the ball forward. When Laois brought Bourke back up the field in the second half it saw them have a bit more joy in attack, but Wexford had the freedom of Nowlan Park at the other end.
As a unit, Laois aren’t defending well, and teams are finding ways through them too easily. David Redmond’s goal on Sunday was a prime example of the difference between Laois and some of the top teams. Redmond sprinted forward from midfield and fired to the back of the net from 21 yards out, without a tackle being made on him. Better teams don’t allow that to happen, and for Laois to get better, they can’t concede scores like that.
This shouldn’t be seen as a spell of defender-bashing, because the forwards are as much to blame as anyone else. Every team is made up of fifteen backs and fifteen forwards, depending on whether you have possession or not, and the forwards could stand to work a bit harder. It is difficult when you are a man down in attack, but it has to be done, and done better than it currently is.
The Laois attack also needs to start scoring a bit more from play, and the reliance on Willie Hyland, and in particular his frees, will have to be diluted. Injuries have played their part here, with Tommy Fitzgerald, Neil Foyle and Stephen Maher all missing significant portions of the campaign. Both Fitzgerald and Foyle made their returns from injury on Sunday, and hopefully they can have a clean run up to the Carlow game, by which time a month of good training will hopefully have them back up to speed. Foyle showed how much of a handful he can be in his 30 minute cameo against Wexford, so there should be more to come.
On the sideline, Teddy McCarthy still has plenty to do if he is start drawing hurling supporters back into O’Moore Park. Aside from the withdrawal of Brian Stapleton, his panel has remained relatively stable, and there should be some more faces added as the local leagues continue over the coming weeks.
In terms of results alone, it has been very disappointing. Laois have been competitive in patches, but are far from convincing at the moment, and until they show signs of that, the level of support will remain low. Those that follow hurling in the county have experienced their fair share of disappointment and false dawns over the last few years, so it will take a big, and crucially, consistent, improvement, to get people out supporting the team again.
McCarthy said after Sunday that he hoped that performance would help to bring some people back, but it was a performance in isolation, and will need to be followed up with a win over Carlow to add some substance to what he is trying to do.
The Carlow game is now crucial both for Laois’ season and for McCarthy’s tenure. He has been promised three years, but a defeat to Carlow will mean seven straight losses under his guidance, and pressure will grow from there.
His late start to this year has bought him some grace with the league performances, as the team were starting behind most of their rivals, most of whom were already ahead of them to being with. There can be no excuses now in the championship. Laois have a month to prepare, have some of their injuries clearing up, and have been shown, painfully so, in this league where their deficiencies are. A month isn’t a long time to rectify them, but a third first-round defeat in the Leinster SHC in four years will be hard to take.
Not to trivialise things, but Laois have problems at both ends of the field that need work. How successfully that is achieved in the next month will have a major bearing on the future on this team and the management.