The shadow boxing over, it's time for things to get a bit more serious. Kildare come to O'Moore Park this Sunday to help launch the Sean Dempsey era of Laois football and it's hard to disagree with the new manager when he says that if he could choose any game to start with, it would be this one.
Despite Laois' poor form over the past two years, this clash stirs local interest more than any other tie. There will be a reasonably big crowd and two sides looking for an early win that would help set them on their way to securing their Division 2 status. And, going on recent league history between the counties, it should be tight.
The sides have drawn in each of their last three league meetings and it would be almost foolish not to take the bookies up on the odds of 8/1 they'll be offering on them ending level again.
Kildare, as usual, will rely on Johnny Doyle for the bulk of their scores and it's going to be a big ask for whatever Laois back is entrusted with that job. Given Laois' lack of experience in defence - where only Peter O'Leary of last week's team has ever started a championship game and Rory Stapleton is the only other to experience inter-county football in the summer - it's certain to be a big step up from what Carlow had to offer last weekend. And, while Kildare mightn't have the same firepower as some of the teams in this division, it's rare to see a team go without so many front-liners and get away with it.
By our count, Laois were without nine backs who have played championship football in recent years for the past two weeks. Padraig McMahon, Cathal Ryan and Mark Timmons should be available for selection this weekend but John O'Loughlin (back injury) and Darren Rooney (holiday committments) won't return for another few weeks. On top of that, Joe Higgins, Tom Kelly and Aidan Fennelly are recovering from operations while Cahir Healy is about to embark on his world travels and he certainly won't play any part in the league. Meath, Monaghan, Cork and Wexford all possess very dangerous forward lines so if Laois are to avoid slipping down to Division 3, they'll have to be ready for what'll be thrown at them.
As Fergal Byron points out elsewhere in these pages, Laois look to be well-served in midfield and up front Dempsey will have to decide on the best starting six that will clock up the required match-winning tallies. Brian McCormack, Michael Tierney and Ross Munnelly should be definite starters while Donie Kingston should also have a big role to play. Donie Brennan and Chris Bergin have done enough in the last couple of weeks to start this weekend while it's also hard to see a Laois team go out without Billy Sheehan, either as a starter on the half-forward line or as a high-impact sub when opposition legs are beginning to tire in the second half.
Shane Conlon, if he's given the chance, has the potential to grow more into the team and if Brian McDonald can regain his sharpness, then he's too good a player to ignore too. The development of some of the younger players, like Ger Reddin and Zach Tuohy, will be worth keeping an eye on too but they have time on their side and the U-21 team that will kick into action in March will offer them another outlet to advance their cause.
As always at this time of the year there's plenty of variables but with four home league games, there's no reason why Laois shouldn't see those eight points on offer as eminently winnable. It's nice not to have to travel to Cork, Monaghan and Fermanagh while they meet Armagh in the second round at a time when they'll be without their Crossmaglen players. It couldn't be set up any better for them.
The hectic schedule of four games on the trot in March will tell us a lot but in a group containing two of last year's provincial champions (Cork and Armagh) and two All Ireland semi-finalists (Cork and Wexford), it's going to be a good test. Of the eight sides, Laois are the only ones not to have reached at least an All Ireland quarter-final in the past two seasons and Dempsey is one of just two first season managers. There should be a freshness about the setup and that should help Laois win enough to avoid trouble even if they mightn't be good enough just yet to get back to Division 1.
Either way it's bound to be an interesting spring.
- Steven Miller