WALSH CUP PREVIEW - Fennelly primed for debut as McEvoy forced to leave panel

New Laois senior hurling manager Brendan Fennelly will get his first taste of action this weekend when Laois welcome UCD for the first round of the Walsh Cup.

New Laois senior hurling manager Brendan Fennelly will get his first taste of action this weekend when Laois welcome UCD for the first round of the Walsh Cup.

The Kilkenny native won't have his strongest 15 available to him, but he is expected to run the rule over some of the newer members of the panel as he begins his preparations for his first league campaign. He has already been working in difficult circumstances, as a number of players are either abroad or considering emigration, while he has also had to wait on the appointment of a second selector, as the county board try to link the job to the U-21 managers position.

If all that wasn't hard enough, he has also been dealt a fresh blow with the news that Mick McEvoy has been forced to withdraw from the panel for the foreseeable future as he concentrates on his studies in Scotland. The Clough-Ballacolla man has left his job to take up a one-year course, and has opted to focus on that for the remainder of the college year, before re-assessing his position in June.

He will also be without Darren Maher this weekend, as he is currently in college in Wales, and will only be able to make it home for league games. It hasn't all been bad news, however, as he has been boosted by the return to the panel of Ballinakill's John Walsh, while it remains to be seen whether Zane Keenan will commit to the panel for the coming year, or whether he will be leaving the country.

What this weekend's game will provide will be a chance for Fennelly to run the rule over some of the newer members of his panel, with Sean Bourke, Brian Smith, Mick Bermingham, Brian Galvin and John Gaughan likely to see some action against the Dublin college.

As he looked ahead to the game, Fennelly admitted he was stepping into the unknown in many respects. "We will have a panel of 24 for this weekend, but we don't know what to expect from UCD," he explained. "We are not up to speed yet. We were training yesterday (Sunday) and did a bit of ball work in that, and that's all the ball work we have done so far, so this weekend will be a finding-out exercise."

There will also be a chance for former goalkeeper Paddy Mullaney to return to senior intercounty hurling, after he fell out of favour during Niall Rigney's tenure. Fennelly will also be hoping that some of the Rathdowney-Errill players can transfer their form from late last year into this weekend, with John Purcell and Owen Houlihan, who were both particularly impressive in the latter stages of their run to the Laois SHC title, in line to start this weekend.

On the issue of the second selector, while it hasn't affected his work as manager up to now, he admits it is something he would like to have resolved as soon as possible with the season now set to get up and running. "I haven't had a second selector made available to me yet, and I hope to sort that out this week," the Ballyhale Shamrocks clubman explained.

"It hasn't been too much of a problem so far, Seamus (Dooley) and myself have been organising training sessions and getting the panel together, but we do need another selector and I hope to have it sorted out this week."

UCD will come with an impressive panel, as most of the big college have at this time of year, given they have first option on county players. Dublin seniors such as Liam Rushe and Oisn Gough form the backbone of their side, while Tipperary's All-Star forward Noel McGrath will also be at their disposal for this game, along with Kilkenny's Seanie Cummins.

Laois' John O'Loughlin could also be involved, although he will have had to wait on the outcome of the UCD footballers game against Meath last night (Tuesday), as the outcome could lead to a fixture clash between the footballers and hurlers for him this Sunday.

The game will take place in Rathdowney at 2pm this Sunday. If they win, Laois will face a home tie against Wexford in the quarter-finals, and if they lose, they will enter the Walsh Cup Shield.