Representatives of the Laois SFC clubs at the Championship launch.
Portlaoise begin the latest defence of their Laois SFC title this week, as the competition begins in earnest once again on Wednesday night.
While the reigning champions have to wait until Saturday to begin, the question remains whether anyone has the ability to take them down.
Stradbally obviously managed it in 2016, halting their bid for ten in a row, but the trajectories of both teams since would suggest that was an aberration. Portlaoise have added depth and reclaimed their title, while Stradbally have failed to build on that famous victory.
For the most part, teams are playing for the right to meet Portlaoise in the final. Only three times this millennium have Portlaoise failed to make a final (2001, 2003 and 2006), and have been in the last eleven in a row. There is little to suggest they will fail to add to that record this year.
Their league campaign was mixed, but they have never placed too much importance on it anyway. They use it to develop some of their younger players, and that in turn adds depth to the panel. The likes of David Holland, Chris Finn and Gareth Dillon have all benefited from that approach, and Gary Saunders, Ronan McEvoy and Shane Smyth will be future beneficiaries also.
While Portlaoise produced a bit of a mixed bag in the league, there were a couple of noteworthy performances. We'll pick out two - Stradbally away, and Ballylinan away. They were the last two teams to play Portlaoise in a county final, and they absolutely pulverised them on their home turf.
In Stradbally, it was 10-16 to 0-6, a scoreline you'd be more likely to see in a Cumann na mBunscol game rather than a league match between the two more recent winners of the Laois SFC (Stradbally conceded the return game in Rathleague due to a lack of players). Down in Ballylinan, they won 6-10 to 0-4, and spurned a number of goal chances.
So, in two league games against their two most recent championship rivals, Portlaoise won with an aggregate score of 16-26 to 0-10, an overall margin of 64 points.
Perhaps the problem teams have is trying to consistently challenge Portlaoise. After taking them to a replay in 2015, Emo were relegated in 2016. After Stradbally beat them in the 2016 final, they ended up in a relegation semi-final last year, and were relegated from Division 1A of the league this year.
Ballylinan battled manfully against them last year, but have been woeful so far this year and ended up getting relegated from Division 1A also, with just one point to their name and the last four games conceded.
What this championship is crying out for is a couple of clubs to provide consistent opposition to Portlaoise, which both of the Arles clubs at least attempted to do between 2009 and 2014.
The most likely challengers to emerge would appear to be O'Dempsey's, fresh from defending their ACFL Division 1A crown. They were very impressive in the final, seeing off St Joseph's once again, and they look a decent outfit.
They have experience in Peter O'Leary, Robbie Kehoe and Conor Meredith. They have promising young players in Mark Barry, Matthew Finlay and Tom Kelly. They have size and strength in the likes of Rory Bracken and the aforementioned Meredith, and should be in a confident mood.
One thing for sure though is that a league title only prepares you so much for a championship run.
They played Portlaoise twice last year in the Laois SFC and were soundly beaten on both occasions. They competed a bit better in the quarter-final, a game that finished 0-15 to 1-4, so we'll only know if they have learned from last year if they can improve on that showing.
St Joseph's have excelled in the league-phase of ACFL Division 1A over the last two years, but two successive final defeats to O'Dempsey's suggest a side struggling to get themselves mentally ready for a crunch game.
They have won a handful of U-21 championships over the last few years, have plenty of good footballers, but still something seems to be missing. That missing link is probably a reliable, scoring forward. When they were under the cosh against O'Dempsey's in the league final, they didn't have anyone to get on the ball in the forward line and eke out a few scores.
The other great entertainers of last year, Portarlington, will be looking for at least another semi-final appearance. They were a joy to watch in 2017, playing exhilirating, attacking football while at the same time, looking so open at the back that you could have steered a cruiseline through their defence and not come close to hitting anyone.
They will undoubtedly have to defend better if they want to make a serious attempt at winning an SFC title, but if you want to beat the likes of Portlaoise, you have to be prepared to attack them, and Port certainly won't be found wanting in that regard.
The only question mark over them is whether Colm Murphy and Robbie Pigott come back from the USA in good form and in good health. They have some excellent young footballers in their ranks, notably Colin Slevin and Ronan Coffey, and have welcomed Adam Ryan back from Dublin too.
Potential winners? Probably not, or not yet, but they could be one of the sides to emerge as a contender to Portlaoise over the next few years.
Graiguecullen are another side looking to build on a promising 2017 season, which saw them make it to the semi-finals, where they put up a credible showing against Portlaoise. Padraig Clancy got a good response from the squad in his first year, and anything less than another semi-final appearance would be a disappointment.
Injuries to Ambrose Doran and Chris Hurley won't help their cause, but if they get another good year from Aaron Forbes, they'll go far.
Outside of those teams listed above, it's hard to see anyone else breaking from the pack. Arles-Killeen could put themselves in the mix, but it all depends on what form the Kingston's are in. They continue to work with more or less the same team each year, and until they can bring through more players and freshen things up, they may have hit their ceiling.
The Heath showed promising signs at times in the league, but consistency remains the issue, while Killeshin, Emo and Ballyroan Abbey could all make a quarter-final or be in a relegation semi-final, depending on how the draws play out.
Stradbally are in the same boat, where you just don't know what you're going to get from them. With club stalwart Tony 'Barney' Maher in the mix you'd have been expecting a response from them this year after ending up in relegation trouble in 2017. There has been no sign of that yet though, so we will have to wait and see if it materialises in the championship.
At the bottom end of the competition, the Ballyfin Gaels and Clonaslee St Manman's Gaels are usually tipped to make the drop, but always seem to fashion a victory from somewhere to keep themselves in the competition. Ballyfin Gaels open against Portlaoise, and they are highly unlikely to win that, so will look for a favourable draw after that.
Emo, freshly promoted from the IFC, have often found themselves in relegation trouble, while Ballylinan's nightmare season to date could see them in trouble. They will obviously welcome back Gary Walsh, Alan Farrell and Jamie Farrell from intercounty duty, but they have a huge amount of improving to do in a very short space of time.
They're opening round opponents, Crettyard Gaels, are another side that are hard to categorise. They could either be in relegation trouble of a quarter-final, although Arles-Kilcruise will have to be careful, having found themselves deep in relegation trouble last year. They were lucky to survive, and won't be lucky forever. Picking up a couple of new players over the winter will have been badly needed for them.
When all is said and done, it really is hard to see beyond Portlaoise, again. If they play to their potential, they will comfortably beat the majority of teams in the competition, and even when not at their best, they can grind out a result.
The suspense lies in who will emerge as contenders, and who will make the drop. Relegation is tricky to call, as it only takes one bad result for a team to spiral, as has happened in recent years with Emo, Stradbally and The Heath.
The outcome of the SFC may well be something close to a formality, but here's hoping for a good championship regardless. If any club can beat Portlaoise to this title they will certainly have earned it.
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