Laois manager Eamonn Kelly
After presiding over the youngest Laois senior hurling panel in recent history last year, Eamonn Kelly finds himself with another big challenge in 2018.
The squad at his disposal has gotten even younger, as a raft of injuries has robbed him of a number of his most experienced players, Cahir Healy, Picky Maher and Dwane Palmer among them.
His first year in the job was a success overall, but this season is already shaping up to be a stern test for him and his squad. It has been a tough winter, and the relief of the league appearing on the horizon is offset by the standard of opposition they are set to face in the opening two games. Limerick, and then Galway, will test this young team to the limit, before they then take on Offaly and Antrim.
It is a reverse of last year, when they opened with the two perceived 'easier' games, and Kelly sees merit in the reverse arrangement this year. “There are two trains of thought on it, last year we had Kerry away and Offaly at home, and they were probably seen as the two easier games, in comparision to Limerick and Galway.
“I was saying at the time you'd be better with the harder games at the start, and they would get you better prepared for these games, so there's two trains of thought on that, but we have to get injuries right.
“Leigh Bergin has had a hamstring injury for the last two weeks, Ross King hasn't played either, so if we could get these lads back, they would really add to it.”
This year is likely to see an even tougher Division 1B than last year, with Offaly revitalised and Antrim benefitting from the guidance of Liam Sheedy. As Kelly pointed out, Offaly's performance in the Walsh Cup shows the jump they have made in a short space of time.
“Offaly ran the same Kilkenny team that we played to three points, so that is a massive gap. We're not happy with the injuries we have but we're not happy with the way we're hurling either, and the onus is on us to get the best out of ourselves.”
The aim for the league, in spite of the injury problems, is still to secure a top four place and a spot in the quarter-finals. “It's probably going to be between Dublin, Antrim, Offaly and ourselves, two of those teams will be in a quarter-final and two will be in a relegation playoff. We just need to get a lot of bodies back on the field quickly enough to make ourselves competitive.”
To push that competitive edge, Kelly was keen for everyone on his panel to push hard for a starting place. “I don't want any fella on that panel that's going to be a sub for the whole year, he needs to be playing a game every ten days, whether that is a practice match of a competitive game.
“We need that to see who is in the right form at a particular time, and we did get the benefit of that so far with the Walsh Cup.”