With the Leaving Cert now all but over, it is time for an even greater test. Laois minor hurlers have had to endure a mid-season hibernation while the great academic salmon run that is the Leaving Cert took place, but the toughest examination of their hurling careers will be played out this Sunday afternoon in Wexford.
The Model men stand between Laois and a first Leinster final appearance since 1991, a purple and yellow barrier that will be hoping their home advantage will count for a few extra scores when Seamas Plunkett’s charges arrive for the 3pm throw in.
The fact that the game is in Wexford is disappointing, but if Laois have shown anything this year it is that they travel well. Both of their victories, against Westmeath and Offaly, have come on the road. Just as encouraging had been the manner, as they showed tremendous spirit in the face of tough challenges on both occasions to grind out the victories.
Wexford, however, are a step up in class, and they have already beaten Dublin, in Dublin. For Seamas Plunkett, the step in class is something to be embraced rather than feared. “Yes it is a great challenge but make no mistake about it, we are all hugely looking forward to it. All of us, players and management, certainly intend to give this our heart and soul on Sunday.
“I know I’ve said this before but there is an honesty and genuineness about this team that has gelled into a real Laois team spirit. In the games against Westmeath and Offaly the players had to fight hard for the win. They showed real character in each game by having to come from behind to dig out the win.
“I feel these games will stand to us on Sunday and the players know that if they are within a few scores of Wexford coming down the straight they will fight tooth and nail to win the game and drive on to a Leinster Final in Croke Park.”
Preparations for this weekend can’t have been easy, with the Leaving Cert putting added pressure on young players who have had to find a delicate balance over the last couple of months. Added to that has been the injury to Paddy Bergin, a cruel blow for one of the team’s key players and leaders.
Those are reason enough to be despondent, but Plunkett is only focussing on the positives ahead of the game. “Other than an unfortunate injury to Paddy Bergin which will rule him out of hurling for the immediate future, preparations have gone well and the panel has worked really hard, including the Leaving Cert students when they had time available.
“I can tell you the team will be ready and up for this game and for whatever Wexford might throw at us and we will not be found wanting when it comes to the heart for battle. The players know they have done the hard work, now we need to go out and win the game.”
Laois GAA have urged supporters to travel en masse to the game on Sunday, although the timing has been criticized as Laois hosts the All-Ireland U-14 football feile this weekend, meaning some people won’t be able to make the semi-final.
Up to now, however, this team has enjoyed excellent support from around the county, and Plunkett was quick to acknowledge the effort Laois people have made to get behind the squad this year. “There has been fantastic support for the team in all of our games to date and I know the minor players really appreciate that support, particularly when the games get tight in the last quarter.
“This is a big week for Laois hurling and despite the heavy costs involved I would encourage all Laois supporters to make a big effort to support all three hurling teams this week. We are a small county in terms of hurling numbers so it is even more important that we all make a big effort.
“At this moment we are planning for the minor panel to travel together to Carlow on Wednesday next to support the U21s and I would’ve been keen to do the same again on Saturday night for the game in Limerick except for it being the night before the Wexford game on Sunday. I would like to wish Willie and all the senior players and management the best of luck in Limerick. It is a tough draw for them and we would all love to see them getting a few breaks.”
On the injury front, Laois are expected to welcome back Joe Campion, who missed the loss to Kilkenny and win over Offaly after breaking his hand against Westmeath. The talented Borris-Kilcotton attacker will be a major boost to Plunkett and his backroom team, but it is in defence where they will have to re-shuffle things, due to Bergin’s injury.
This squad are the first of the Setanta programme to make it to minor level, and after the huge effort and commitment put in over the last number of years, a victory on Sunday would be a fitting reward for the visionary work done by hurling people in the county.
That might seem like it’s heightening the pressure on the players, but really it isn’t. All they have to do is go out and hurl to the best of their ability. It has been good enough to get them this far, and hopefully with one more push, it will take them a little bit further.