Just two weeks after a superb victory over Dublin, Laois U-21 hurlers will face up to local rivals Carlow tonight (Wednesday), with a place in the Leinster U-21 final at stake.
In a year which started out so poorly for Laois hurling, with the seniors suffering relegation, it has been a massive turnaround in the county’s fortunes to now see two underage teams on the brink of provincial finals.
For the U-21s, they garnered national attention a fortnight ago when, just four days after the seniors had suffered a humiliating defeat against Dublin, they went and knocked the same opposition out of the Leinster championship.
The manner in which they did it was particularly impressive, as they took the game to Dublin from the start, and if anything, were unlucky to win by just four points in the end. The effort, concentration and skill levels shown on the night were outstanding, but now Laois face their most difficult test - doing it all over again.
Laois teams in the past have turned in excellent performances, be it at U-21, senior or minor level, but to really start bridging the gap between us and the opposition, it is consistently performing at such a high level that Laois need to master.
With the win against Dublin now consigned to history, Carlow await in party-spoiling mood. Hurt by their loss to Laois at senior level, they will be supremely focussed on upsetting Laois in tonight’s game. It was said after the win over Dublin that, but meeting Carlow in the semi-final, that Laois had a great chance to make a Leinster final. The same, it is probably fair to assume, will have been said in Carlow.
They will much prefer playing Laois than Dublin, so Tony Doran and his players will have to be extremely wary of the challenge they face this weekend, as Carlow look to qualify for their first ever Leinster U-21 final.
Looking ahead to the game, the Borris-Kilcotton man was confident that his side will approach the game in the same manner as they did against Dublin. “There was a certain element that thought the incentive for us to beat Dublin was that we got to meet Carlow in the semi-final, but that wasn’t the incentive at all.
“In my opinion Carlow are no different to Dublin or Kilkenny or any other team, they have fifteen players on the field and they are all well able to hurl and they have all the skills they need to win.”
For Doran, he admits he’s looking for his Laois team to start the game as they finished against Dublin, when they hit 1-5 in the closing minutes to seal that famous win. “We’ll need to start the game the way we finished the last day, and be prepared to push on again when it’s needed.”
The panel has been boosted by a couple of additions, with Cha Dwyer coming on board, and Doran confirmed that minor manager Seamas Plunkett has given the U-21 setup permission to use the Ballinakill star if he’s needed. Bill Duggan has also agreed to join up with the panel, but he will not be available for tonight’s game due to exam commitments.
Neil Foyle’s injured finger has been responding well to treatment too, and while there is a slight concern over Nathan Unwin, he is still expected to line out at wing back. In attack, Brendan Reddin’s performance when introduced the last day is likely to see him play from the start, with the man he replaced, Patrick Whelan, the favourite to make way.
Victory tonight could set off a chain reaction of success, with Laois’ three hurling teams in action in the space of five days. Out of the gloom of the last two years in the hurling scene at county level, green shoots appear to be taking root, and while this could add some pressure on for the players, Doran knows they are aware of what the game means. “It’s not something we need to speak about, the players know themselves.
“They know that at minor level and U-21 level, and down to U-14 and the younger age groups there is talent in the county, and the key now is to keep it going properly and get all of our best players committed.”
If Laois can replicate the form they showed against Dublin there is no doubting they can win this game, but a mixture of complacency and nerves has to be the fear now.
Nine of the Carlow squad are involved with the seniors, and when these sides last met at U-21 level, in O’Moore Park, Carlow accounted for Laois at their ease. They may not have the prestige of a Kilkenny, Dublin or Wexford, but Carlow are still a major challenge for any team, particularly Laois, who have struggled against them in the past.
The start will be crucial, if Laois can, as Tony Doran hopes, finish the game as they started the win over Dublin, then it gives them a great chance. It will only be that though, a chance, and they will need to produce another 60 minute performance as they did against Dublin. Do that, and they will get another 60 minutes to have a go at winning a Leinster title.