A scenario familiar to many of us will play out once again this Sunday afternoon, as the Laois senior hurlers begin another league campaign with another new manager. There has always been hope accompanying days like this, but this year things are different. There might just be some excitement too.
Seamas Plunkett’s appointment two months ago lead to a whirlwind of activity in a short space of time for the county’s senior hurlers. Left idle and disillusioned throughout a bleak winter, they have since been put into their stride by a manager and backroom team hell-bent on making up for lost time. They have been assessed by fitness experts and been told what they need to do to improve. Ger Cunningham was brought in as a technical coach, boasting an impressive CV that includes an All-Ireland club title with Newtownshandrum and a Fitzgibbon Cup with UL.
Diets have been monitorted and an intensive, six-days-a-week training schedule has been enforced to make up for the lost time. The players said they wanted a modern manager with a modern approach to the game. Now they have one.
Having most, if not all, of the requirements met does two things for the players. It gives them a sense of confidence in the county board and the management team, and it also removes any excuses which could have been used in the past.
So far, it has been hard to judge where Laois really are. In the Walsh Cup, they trained for over an hour before both games, making analysis of the performances pretty redundant. They competed well in the circumstances, but naturally enough faded late on against both UCD and Antrim. You would hope they have 70 minute performances in their legs by now, but only competitive league games will tell us for sure.
In his after match interviews following both games, Seamas PLunkett spoke of how happy he was that the players were putting in so much work. Kudos to them for doing so, but it is the minimum requirement of any player nowadays who aspires to play at a competitive intercounty level. Plenty more of it will be needed in the weeks, months and years ahead, but at least things have started on a positive note.
Ultimately, however, all the effort counts for very little if it isn’t transferred onto the field. The commitment and sacrifice in training will have to be seen as commitment and sacrifice on the field for any of it to count, and that is the biggest challenge for Seamas Plunkett.
On the positive side of things, however, is that he has a good track record in this department. He is a fiercely proud Laois man and demands his players show a similar pride on the field. In his time with the minors, his teams were never beaten for the lack of effort or work rate, and if some of the Laois seniors can align their undoubted talent with a good work rate, then rapid improvements could be made in a relatively short space of time.
Perhaps the place Laois need the most improvement is in the forward line, an area where the ball has been only a fleeting visitor for much of the last two years. It goes in, but comes back out too quickly, so developing an efficient forward line capable of winning their own ball and converting it into a greater return of scores from play is a must.
The raw materials are there - Willie Hyland, Tommy Fitzgerald, Zane Keenan, John Brophy, Stephen Maher, Willie Dunphy, PJ Scully, Cha Dwyer - to name only a handful, will battle it out for places in the forward-line, and against Division 2A opposition it will be hoped that they can come out on top more often than not.
In defence, Laois’ most impressive performers over the last few years have generally been in a jersey numbered between two and seven, but most of that was because there was so much ball raining down on them, they had more chances to show what they could do. A fit-again Brian Campion will bring a bit of leadership and steel back to the defence, with the same going for John A Delaney.
Cahir Healy has thrown his hat into the ring for the year too in spite of the problems facing the modern intercounty dual-player, while Brian Stapleton and Joe Fitzpatrick are also back in the fold. That’s an almost an entire new defence having re-committed themselves to the cause, which is naturally a massive boost to the panel. With the players that were already there that means there should be two options for every defensive position, and it has been that kind of competition for places that has been sorely lacking in recent years.
A little over two months ago there wasn’t much that anyone would have expected from the 2013 season, but since Plunkett’s appointment a sense of excitement has swept around the county. Hurling supporters are aware of the work that is being done and appreciate it, and they are also craving the chance to follow a successful team too.
The standout opposition in the NHL is Westmeath, who have made huge strides at underage level over the last ten years or so. Some of their more celebrated veterans may not be involved, but they have produced some excellent hurlers over the last few years to ensure they are still competitive. Only last year they beat Antrim in the Leinster SHC and then scored 4-12 against Galway.
If Laois are in the right state of mind against the rest of the teams in the Division - Derry, Kerry, Kildare and Wicklow - then they should have enough to win all four games.
For now, the focus is on Kildare, and while the ambitions of the players and management may rest in days beyond this weekend, their focus shouldn’t. This is Laois’ first real chance to show the rest of the hurling world that there is life in the county yet, that 2013 could be a year Laois takes steps to rid itself of the humiliations of the last two years. Laois won’t solve all of their problems this year, but hopefully by the end of the league there won’t be as many of them as there were just a few short months ago.