Michael Kehoe and Colin Beale battle in the rain when the pair met in the league in Stradbally. Pic: Denis Byrne
The Laois SFC has seen a number of pulsating games already this year, with the clashes of Ballyroan-Abbey V Arles-Kilcruise and O'Dempsey's V Ballylinan last week going to replays, and both replays were only won with a point to spare. The quarter-final draw was made directly after O'Dempsey's held off Ballylinan last night, and three of the four games look difficult to call on paper.
STRADBALLY V ST JOSEPH'S
The 2016 champions Stradbally had a year to forget last year, as they failed to orchestrate the miraculous year they had previously, and slumped into a relegation semi-final, which they managed to score a victory over Arles-Kilcruise. They met the same side in the first round of the 2017 championship, but the result was overturned, as Arles-Kilcruise edged them out by a point.
They were relieved to see they got one of the perceived weaker teams in the round 2 though, and had no problems of disposing Clonaslee St Manman's Gaels, sauntering to a facile seventeen point win. They were then drawn out to play Portarlington, who went into the game as slight favourites, but a flawless Jody Dillon performance helped Stradbally reach the quarters once again.
St Joseph's have also beaten Portarlington, but did so in much less dramatic fashion in round two. They led from the start there, and always had control of the game. They had come into that game off the back of a win over The Heath in round one, where a strong second half meant they had no problems there either.
St Joseph's, like Portarlington were, are much more mobile than Stradbally, but Barney Maher's charges are very cute, and can call on a lot of experience when required. You fear that St Joseph's still haven't really another top scorer other than Michael Keogh. If Colm Begley can curtail his influence in this one, then Stradbally have a great chance.
KILLESHIN V GRAIGUECULLEN
These two local rivals collided last year in the championship, with Graiguecullen running out 2-11 to 0-15 winners in round one. Killeshin have greatly improved i the last year, while it seems Graiguecullen have stagnated a little.
Killeshin looked quite average in the first round of this year's championship, as they only had four points to spare over Clonaslee St Manman's Gaels. Their second round performance was miles better though, as they beat last year's county finalists Ballylinan comfortably. Stephen Attride's return was key, as he won his individual duel with Gary Walsh, and Killeshin scored at their will up front.
Graiguecullen have beaten all that's been expected of them so far, with a fine defensive performance in round one seeing them catch league champions O'Dempsey's on the hop.
The daunting task that is Portlaoise was up next, and despite a solid opening twenty minute spell, the county champions never had to get out off second gear to get the better of Graiguecullen for the second year running. What was worrying about that display was the fact that Graiguecullen put in a much better shift last year against them, so it's still unknown whether the Carlow-border outfit have actually improved at all.
They had it all their own way for most of the game against Crettyard Gaels, but Killeshin will serve as a step up for Graiguecullen. Graiguecullen should still possess the quality to get through this one, but expect Killeshin to show no fear of them.
O'DEMPSEY'S V EMO
Another geographical local derby, but these two sides haven't met in the championship in a long time, so this one has all the makings of a classic. It's helped by the fact that both teams play a fast and exciting brand of football, so a high-scoring affair is on the cards.
O'Dempsey's have flattered to deceive so far in this year's championship a bit. Despite winning back-to-back league titles, they fell to a disappointing opening round defeat to Graiguecullen. They bounced back well against Arles-Killeen, as they punished the slow and ponderous Killeen back line.
Up next for them was Ballylinan in round three, and they were expected to overcome that challenge considering Ballylinan's poor year to date. The men in green and gold fine tuned their best performance to date though, as O'Dempsey's main scorer Matthew 'Hatch' Finlay had to slot over a last minute free to keep their championship dreams alive. They were the better team for three quarters of the replay, but a complacent last quarter nearly cost them, as they came out unconvincing one point winners.
Emo's year back in the big time has been admirable, as 2017's Intermediate champions have two wins under their belts against both Arles-Killeen (where a replay was required) and Arles-Kilcruise. With new forwards Jack Owens and Stephen Norton impressing for them so far, they have an abundance of talent right around the field.
This is another hard one to call, but O'Dempsey's might be the more match fit at this stage, after two hard-hitting games with Ballylinan recently, so they might edge this one.
PORTLAOISE V BALLYROAN-ABBEY
The last draw of the quarter-finals looks like the only one that's straightforward to predict. Portlaoise go into every game as overwhelming favourites, and this one will be no different.
The Town drew Ballyfin Gaels in round one, and despite a respectable showing from the Gaels outfit, Portlaoise were never in any trouble either. A round two meeting with Graiguecullen was expected to be a few levels up, but Portlaoise cruised into the quarter finals in the end, with a 1-16 to 0-9 victory.
Ballyroan-Abbey have been a bit of surprise package this year, as some new additions have bolstered them a lot. Marty Scully, Shaun Murphy and Scott Conroy have added a lot of strength in size to their ranks. Portarlington, who had nineteen points to spare over Ballyroan-Abbey last year, only beat them by the minimum when the pair met in the first round this year, with Marty Scully's second yellow proving costly for Ballyroan-Abbey.
They were brilliant for fourty minutes against The Heath, but almost let slip their sizeable lead near the end, having to dig deep to grind out the win. Two epic encounters with Arles-Kilcruise followed, and after so shortage of controversy, an MJ Tierney free got them into the quarter-finals.
Ballyroan-Abbey are definitely capable of getting stuck into Portlaoise, but beating them should prove a step too far for this young and exciting team.