The Laois senior hurlers have been hit with mixed fortunes ahead of this weekend’s relegation playoff with Wexford in Nowlan Park, as they will welcome back Tommy Fitzgerald from injury, but corner-back Brian Stapleton has opted off the panel.
The Borris-Kilcotton defender has decided to drop himself off the panel as he felt he could not fully commit himself to the setup, as selector Christy Dunphy explained. “Brian has left the panel because he felt he was not able to commit himself fully, and it was affecting his performances.
“Brian is an out and out gentleman and it’s sad to see him go.”
Dunphy was holding out hope, however, that he might make a return later in the year. “I wouldn’t rule it out, he just wanted to re-charge his batteries because he wasn’t up to speed. He couldn’t give 100% commitment and he is a perfectionist.
“He has given so many years to Laois, and he has done a lot of work behind the scenes, and as a panel we appreciate what he has done, and we are sad to see him go.”
Stapleton missed much of last year with a broken collar bone, and had featured in the team’s last outing against Wexford. Dunphy did confirm that with the local hurling leagues now up and running, the management team will be keeping an eye out for new players, with as many as three players set to be called into the squad.
On the flip side of things, the return of Tommy Fitzgerald from injury does at least bolster the Laois attack.Fitzgerald has missed the last three games with a broken finger, but he will return for this must-win game, and is likely to make a swift return to the starting fifteen.
The team took on the Cork U-21s in a practice match on Easter Monday to mark the opening of a pitch in Cork, but an understrength side suffered defeat.
That wasn’t really ideal preparation for this weekend’s game, where Laois enter as massive underdogs following their 15 point defeat at the hands of Wexford in their final round of league games.
The league as a whole has been disappointing for Laois, with the two point loss to Antrim as close as they have come to earning a win. Whatever momentum they gained from that performance was lost in the defeat to Wexford, so they are starting from a low base as they prepare for this game.
They have leaked a lot of scores this year, and that makes Stapleton’s withdrawal particularly damaging, as, with Brian Smith already out injured and John A Delaney not on the panel, it leaves Laois short of options in the full-back line.
Darren Maher is an almost certain started at full-back, with Paddy Mullaney likely to start beside him, but after that the other corner-back position is up for grabs. Laois do have options at least, as either Conor Dunne or Canice Coonan could drop back to the number four jersey, but that then leaves gaps to be filled further out the field.
At midfield, Laois have again struggled for consistency, and while James Walsh picked up a knock playing for Ballinakill at the weekend, he is expected to be fit and should start at midfield. Laois will need a big performance from him, as he has not yet played to the full of his undoubted abilities this year. They can take solace from the fact that he does perform in pressure games such as this, so the high stakes involved in this Sunday’s game could bring the best out of him.
In attack, Fitzgerald’s return was badly needed, as they team have been beset by injuries to key players in this department for most of the league.
Neil Foyle suffered a recurrence of his elbow injury in the loss to Clare, and he is still a few weeks away from full fitness, so is likely to miss out on Sunday’s game. Stephen ‘Picky’ Maher has also had limited time to impose himself on senior intercounty hurling as he struggles to shake off a hamstring injury which has dogged him so far this year, while many of the others have struggled for form.
Willie Hyland remains the biggest scoring threat for Laois, and he will need to give as good a performance as he has ever managed in a Laois jersey if this weekend’s game is to be competitive.
Wexford won the meeting two weeks ago at their ease, and with players to return to the fold, it’s reasonable to assume they will be even better when they take to the field in Nowlan Park. Jack Guiney gave an exhibition at full-forward down in Enniscorthy, and if Wexford start with him in that position once again, then Darren Maher will need more protection from his team mates.
Too often the ball was rained down on top of Guiney by players put under little pressure further out the field, and if this is allowed to happen again, Laois can only expect one outcome.
Laois too have players to return to the fold after resting some of the first choice players for that game with Wexford, but a change in attitude as much as a change in personnel will be needed. Wexford weren’t put under any pressure by Laois in that game, and only by doing that this time around will Laois be able to assess just how well they can compete with them.
Teddy McCarthy has stated repeatedly this year that his team are well behind the others in terms of fitness and training because they started back later than everyone else, so for some time it looks like he has been expecting relegation.
Laois are the overwhelming favourites to make the drop, and it’s hard to argue against that given the results so far this year. Wexford could prove to be a bridge too far once again this weekend, but with the championship date with Carlow a more realistic barometer for Laois’ success, this Sunday is more important in terms of performance than result.
If Laois show enough to suggest that they can compete with, and beat Carlow when the times comes, then there is at least something tangible to take from what has been a disappointing year to date. If there is another performance like the one displayed in their last outing, however, then very little will have been gained or achieved over the last four months.
Put simply, Laois need a performance this weekend.