Laois facing into Mission Impossible as Dublin await in Nowlan Park

Preview Leinster SFC Quarter-Final

Laois facing into Mission Impossible as Dublin await in Nowlan Park
By Rory Delaney rory@leinsterexpress.ie @Express_Sport

After all the fallout from the selection of the venue, the footballers of Laois and Dublin will finally lock horns this Saturday evening in the controversial surrounds of Nowlan Park, Kilkenny.

We'll come back to the venue later, but if we were to take our lead from the bookmakers, we'd probably be as well off ending the preview here and now. The bookies, we are told, rarely get it wrong, and they have Dublin installed as 1/100 favourites, incredible odds in a head-to-head game.

They are incredible until you dig a little deeper, at which point, unfortunately for Laois, they take on some credence. Laois had, statistically, the worst defence in the national leagues. They followed that up with a win over Wicklow, but conceded 0-18 in the process.

Mick Lillis joked afterwards that perhaps Laois should consider placing snipers in the stands to try to counteract Dublin. There may have been a heavy touch of gallows humour about the statement, but it suggests a manager who doesn't believe his side can win.

He's not on his own, with Laois' outrage over the game being in Nowlan Park at least masking the feeling of dread about what the outcome of the game will actually be, regardless of where it is played.

A little over a decade ago, there wasn't much to chose between the sides. Laois beat Dublin by two points on their way to the Leinster title of 2003, and two years later, a last minute point for Dublin handed them a 0-14 to 0-13 win in the Leinster final. During that time they were evenly matched and comfortably the two best teams in the province.

After that, Dublin dominated the next two encounters - the Leinster semi-final of 2006 and final of 2007, but Laois seemed to be clawing their way back to parity with a decent showing in the 2012 All-Ireland quarter-final, where an unfortunate own-goal gave Dublin a 1-12 to 0-12 victory.

Laois' decline in the four years since has been alarming, however, while Dublin have moved into a different stratosphere from most other counties. Laois left Croke Park in 2014 relatively happy with an 11 point loss, and that probably tells its own story.

Heading into this weekend, with expectations at an all-time low, it's probably fair to say most Laois supporters would be happy to get out of Nowlan Park with another 11 point loss. Is that the best we can hope for, or could Laois spring a surprise?

You can never rule anything out in sport, but it would be one of the biggest shocks in Leinster SFC history if Laois either won or drew this weekend. While there is plenty of ability in the squad, Mick Lillis has struggled to get the balance right, and while they have shown they can run up scores if given the chance, they don't defend well enough.

Their tackling in the win over Wicklow was alarmingly poor, and with a Dublin side which will attack with far more speed, precision and menace awaiting them in Kilkenny, the potential for a drubbing is certainly there.

Along with tackling, Laois struggle to defend down through the middle, and their half back line is too attack-minded to offer consistent cover for the full-back line. If there is space left in front of Mark Timmons on Saturday, Dublin will find it and exploit it, and the Graigue man could be in for a long night.

If Mick Lillis was looking for a recent template on how to approach the game, he need only look to 2012, when Laois sat tight and kept themselves in the game by frustrating Dublin and picking off scores when they could. To the naked eye, Laois don't look as fit now as they have done in the last few years, so trying to mark man-for-man or pouring men forward at every opportunity don't really seem like viable options.

In attack, Laois have shown some flair at times this year, and scoring 3-16 in the semi-final was a good sign. Donie Kingston was marginal for most of that game but still ended up with 1-6, and Laois will need a 70+ minute performance out of him on Sunday. Dublin will undoubtedly have a plan in place for him, and he will be in for a tough evening, but he'll have to keep himself focussed and not allow anything to distract or dishearten him.

Gary Walsh has shown flashes of his ability so far this year and Ross Munnelly is there to lend his experience to the occasion, while Evan O'Carroll, Paul Cahillane, Conor Meredith and Ruairi O'Connor can all chip in with scores too. The number of opportunities Laois can fashion, however, remains to be seen.

John O'Loughlin turned in a typical all-action display against Wicklow, and he has been crucial in an attacking sense for Laois this year, but his size and strength will be needed in defence as well. He'll need more help from Brendan Quigley too, who wasn't at his best against Wicklow, but certainly has the ability to improve on that performance.

So, back to the matter of Nowlan Park. Will it have an influence on the game? It more than likely will, but to what extent remains to be seen. A home tie for Laois would have seen more home support at the game, but they would still have been totally outnumbered by Dublin regardless of where it was played. The draw for Portlaoise from a footballing point of view was familiarity for the Laois players, while in a broader sense, it was having a glamour tie in the county grounds, with all the bells and whistles that come with it.

The Laois players and management should be angry about missing out on that, and teams have been motivated to do great things by less. It will no doubt be felt in the dressing room, whether it is directly addressed or not. If Laois needed an added incentive to get them riled up for this game, then they have it.

The same goes, however, for Dublin. There has been so much written about the preferential treatment they get in playing all of their home games in Croke Park, that they have a point to prove themselves. Jim Gavin and his side will be eager to prove that they can go anywhere in the country and win, and that is what they will probably do.

Add to the mix the competition for places in the Dublin panel, itself probably a bigger motivating factor than anything else for a Dublin player, and Laois can expect to meet a highly motivated Dublin team on Saturday.

Laois will undoubtedly be highly motivated for the game themselves, but that will only take them so far. They have had a lot of issues to resolve in a short space of time, and expecting them to get a result against Dublin is, unfortunately, probably expecting too much. Regardless of the outcome, there is still plenty to play for as the year progresses, with plenty of players on the team with points to prove after successive Qualifier defeats to Division 4 teams in the last two years.

A mountainous task awaits this weekend, but scaling a few smaller peaks later in the year is probably a more realistic goal for 2016.