Another year, but the Laois senior football landscape looks the same. Portlaoise are streaking clear at the head of the pack, with Arles-Kilcruise the only genuine challengers to their dominance. It is becoming an all too familiar sight. Rory Delaney looks ahead to this Sunday’s Final
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Not that this is a problem for either Portlaoise or Arles-Kilcruise, who have taken up their positions at the top of the pile because of hard work and a continued desire to be the best team they can be. Their styles are markedly different, but that all adds to the intrigue. This Sunday will be a battle of perseverence against panache, solidity against style.
Portlaoise are undoubtedly the favourites, indeed how could they be anything else. Odds on to make it six Laois SFC titles in a row, they won their semi-final by a whopping 19 points. They have a formidable starting team, an equally formidable list of substitutes, as well as a culture and habit of winning county finals. This is what they do.
Success has come throughout the year for them once again, with another Division 1 league title secured and, despite a surprise draw against Portarlington, a relatively smooth passage through to the county final. Their traditional style of play has been in evidence this year too, with the ball moved quickly and players moving strongly both on and off the ball. They attack from everywhere and the concentration levels needed from teams to cope with them is massive. They have played enough football over the last six years to know exactly what the players around them are doing, and the man in possession always has an option.
Paul Cahillane and Brian McCormack gave a masterclass in finishing last time out against St Joseph’s, accounting for 2-10 between them. The full-forward line is probably not McCormack’s favoured position, having spent his career pulling the strings for the team further out the field, but he has adapted with ease and will still be able to orchestrate plenty of Portlaoise’s play from the full-forward line. Cahillane gets better every year, and his movement in particular is his ace in the pack. He always seems to get into space, and once he has enough room to get a shot off, he is a threat.
At midfield, Portlaoise have struggled for continuity over the last couple of years, with Brian McCormack, Aidan Fennelly, Adrian Kelly and Kevin Fitzpatrick, among others, given playing time there. Kelly has retained his place, and his height alone is enough to make him an asset there, although he could easily pop up with a few points in the final. Conor Boyle has stepped into the breach beside him, and so far the signs have been encouraging. Three points from play in the semi-final were a big boost to a player not noted for scoring, and if he comes face to face with Kevin Meaney, which is the likely pairing, it’ll be a fascinating battle.
In defence, they don’t really have a specialist full-back, instead six good defenders that can switch between positions. Whether Arles-Kilcruise can test that remains to be seen, but they are more than likely going to have Ross Munnelly as the main focal point of the attack in a two-man full-forward line, in which case Cahir Healy will probably be detailed to man-mark him. That tussle alone could justify the entrance fee.
Munnelly will have to carry much of the scoring burden for Arles-Kilcruise, but it is a responsibility that won’t faze him in the slightest. He was superb in the semi-final win over O’Dempsey’s, and will hope to be as clinical on Sunday as he was then. It will be important that he is, as Portlaoise are probably going to dominate possession, so when the ball does move forward for Arles-Kilcruise they will have to make the most of every attack.
Kilcruise don’t have the overall strength of the Portlaoise team, but what they have achieved in the last four years for a club their size has been remarkable. They have a small panel (the smallest of all four teams in the semi-finals), but every player gives everything they have to the cause. They will never be out-worked or never give up, and they will need all of those dogged qualities in the final.
There is no great love lost between the clubs either, with events from last year adding further spice to the mix. There was an altercation on the sideline between the officials from both clubs in the quarter-finals, while Portlaoise joint-manager Mark Kavanagh praised Graiguecullen after last year’s final for not playing a defensive style of play, likening that to the “negative bull***t” from teams like Arles-Kilcruise.
Arles will make no apologies for how they play, nor should they, as it is the style that suits them and their players the best. Chris Conway will be looking to pull the strings for them once again, and few players in the county can exert as much influence on a game as him.
For all of Arles-Kilcruise’s strong points, however, they probably just don’t have enough of them. Portlaoise are strong in every position, and equally so on the sideline. In the semi-final, after Brian McCormack had scored his goal, he was replaced by Zach Tuohy, a professional athlete. No team could be expected to compete with such strength.
The final will no doubt be competitive, and it will be interesting viewing because it is a clash of styles, of philospohies, and of two good, organised, experienced teams.
If history has taught us anything bout the meetings between these teams, it is that they are almost always close. In their championship meetings in 2011 and 2010, only a goal separated the teams, and in the final of 2009, Portlaoise had just four points to spare. It will be a close, competitive battle, but the result should still be the same as it has been, both in the games between these teams, and the championship as whole.
Portlaoise to win, and re-write the history books yet again.