A new era for Laois will start on some very familiar ground. Dr Cullen Park holds no surprises for the senior hurlers, but after a tubulent 12 months for the squad, only a victory this weekend will be good enough against Carlow.
Teddy McCarthy will make his championship debut as manager, and his brief when he came in was to steady the ship and return the team to a competitive level. So far, that hasn’t happened, although he was quick to point out during the league that the extensive trial period and selection process Laois used over the winter months meant they finalised their panel later, and so got to work later than everyone else.
That was clear during the league, and Laois were not consistently competitive throughout the failed Division 1B campaign. The performance in the relegation playoff against Wexford offered glimmers of hope, as they played some nice hurling and hit Liam Dunne’s side for 0-19 on the day.
On the other hand, they conceded 5-12, and the defence has found itself cut open more often than is satisfactory at any level. The back six need to improve, no doubt, but defence is a 15 man effort, and they need more help from the forwards.
That is a problem which has spanned any number of recent managers, and the work rate of the forwards will remain an issue until there are notable signs of improvement. Willie Hyland will have to lead from the front this year as the captain, and he must set the tone from the start.
Laois aren’t good enough to coast by with only a handful of players either scoring or putting in the work needed, and the work rate of this team will be as much under scrutiny as anything else. After the hammering against Cork in last year’s championship the players can’t hint that the same depths could be reached again this year, so that increases the pressure on the players to perform.
The feeling in the camp at last Thursday night’s open night for fans and media was one of confidence, and all involved were expecting a good result this week. Expectation has crippled Laois teams for a while now, particularly in hurling, and that confidence will have to be tempered with caution.
Carlow have won the last two competitive meetings between the teams, and while the margins of victory weren’t particularly big (four points and one point respectively), the manner of the performances were. They were the better team for the majority of both games, and they know they are capable of beating Laois.
Kevin Ryan is a very astute manager too, and the level of involvement he has taken in Carlow since he became manager is massive. He has managed the U-21s as well as the seniors and enjoyed success over Laois at both grades, and he will have Carlow well prepared for this Saturday night.
Aside from their confidence over beating Laois in their last two meetings, Carlow are also Division 2 champions, and while they may have hurled a grade below Laois this year, they still showed they were too good for it by topping the league and winning promotion.
For Laois, and Teddy McCarthy, it’s hard to assess the expectations in the county at the moment. After last year the main aim has to be to make the team competitive again, and Saturday will determine how far Laois have come over the last 12 months.
In terms of personnel, the absence of Joe Fitzpatrick and Brian Stapleton will be keenly felt, with both having a big impression on the team both on the playing field and off of it.
Up front, Neil Foyle’s return from injury will be key, as they will need him at full-forward. He has only appeared sporadically this year but you could argue that he has never made such a significant contribution at senior intercounty level in relation to his time on the field. Since being thrust in out of minor he has steadily grown at this level, but he caused pandemonium against Wexford in the relegation game when he was at full-forward, and Laois are a more threatening team with him leading the attack.
Some players have grown throughout the league too, and both David O’Mahony and Chris Murray played superbly at times. If both could add some consistency to their games they are nailed on starters for the rest for the year.
At midfield, James Walsh hasn’t played as well as he can, but it’s hard to shake off the feeling he’ll produce a big display this weekend when needed. Finding someone to partner him as been the problem, with Joe Fitzpatrick having stepped into the breach for the last few games in the league only to withdraw from the panel.
Brian Dunne showed promise early on and Sean Bourke is another option, but either one will have had little recent playing time there when the ball is thrown in this Saturday night.
Whoever lines out, supporters are going to look to attitude as much as anything else. A victory is crucial, but unless a performance of real courage and bottle is produced, then the doubts will linger on over this team. They don’t deserve that, but that’s the way things are sometimes. It’s up to them to start winning support back, and that job begins on Saturday.