Laois hurling faces into its most important five days in decades, as between this Wednesday evening in Carlow and by the full time whistle in Wexford Park on Sunday, the future on all fronts could be very exciting indeed.
While there are great expectations for both the minor and U-21 sides, little is expected from the senior side that takes on Limerick in the All-Ireland qualifiers in the Gaelic Grounds on Saturday evening with a 7 o’clock throw in. However, it is crucial to the overall cause that they improve greatly on their dismal display last day out.
The embarrassing defeat against Dublin in Tullamore plunged Laois hurling supporters to the depths of despair, but three days later the heroic display of the U-21 side, as they dumped Leinster champions and All Ireland finalists Dublin out of the championship, immediately restored pride and hope in Laois hurling.
Now in a few days, when much is expected of both underage sides, it is up to the senior players to throw their weight behind the wheel and not only do it for themselves but for the whole future of hurling in Laois.
It will be a tall order as they are playing a Limerick side that are improving with every outing, and that pushed Tipperary so close and indeed could, and probably should, have beaten them in the Munster opener had they had a little bit more belief in their own ability. They certainly showed that they are a major force in hurling again and they will be in no mood to let Laois impede their progress up the ladder.
Laois got a roasting in O’Connor Park from a flying Dubs side and it was only that Anthony Daly’s side switched off when they were 27 points in front and with 17 minutes still to play that allowed their opponents to hit six late scores, while the winners just stopped scoring themselves. Had they continued to turn the screw then Laois could have been looking at a record defeat.
Having beaten Carlow comfortably in the opening round, there was some optimism that Laois could at least give Dublin a game, but the result only confirmed that there is a serious gulf between the top, middle and bottom hurling counties. Dublin, of course, will be in action against Kilkenny in O’Moore Park on Saturday and we will then know just how far away Laois are, and what tier we realistically should be in.
Teddy McCarthy will not know what way his team will line up like until after the U-21 game in Carlow on Wednesday night, with Gearoid Burke, Picky Maher, Neil Foyle and Willie Dunphy all first choice members of that side, and he will be hoping that all of them come through unscathed while Brendan Reddin and Nathan Unwin are members of both squads also.
There will certainly be changes from the Dublin game, with David O’Mahoney gone abroad for the summer, but there is little scope to strengthen the side from the current panel. Reports have also suggested that there have been small numbers at training, with priority being given to the U-21 sides preparations, but still is seems strange that both squads have been training on the same nights at different venues
It is unlikely that Cahir Healy will feature this time with Laois footballers having a crucial game against Carlow the following weekend, and having only ben used as a second half substitute against Dublin when ready to start.
Willie Dunphy certainly nailed down a starting place with his display when introduced in Tullamore, while Chris Murray and Brian Smith are also in contention, and McCarthy will have to focus on midfield where they were totally outclassed last day out.
Willie Hyland received the hurler of the month award for his display against Carlow but was never in the game in Tullamore, and he will be hoping to bounce back and show that wasn’t his real form, but against a strong Limerick defence scores will be hard to come by.
Laois can point to their best display in the qualifiers since they were introduced was against Limerick in Semple Stadium a few years back, but much has changed in both counties since, with John Allen following fellow Cork man Donal Cashman at the helm and arresting the slide. They played a tremendous brand of hurling against Tipperary before literally running out of steam and with the experience of the 2010 All Ireland champions telling in the end
With huge optimism for the future at underage level the pressure is certainly on Teddy McCarthy to somehow motivate his side to put in a big display in Limerick, and to hurl with the passion and heart that appeared to be sadly lacking against Dublin.
He stated after that game that he was in Laois for the long haul, but Saturday’s game could well decide his immediate future.