It may not have been a winning start, but new Laois manager Justin McNulty still left O'Moore Park pleased with what he had witnessed after handing senior debuts to four players.
Tony Hannon's late double had put a dampener on Laois's second half revival, when they came back from seven points down to hit 1-5 without reply to lead with three minutes to go. They were unable to hold on though, and while Wicklow left with the victory, the Armagh man felt there was plenty for him to take from the game too. "I think it's encouraging, the intensity and application shown by the players throughout the match, they gave it their all and that's very encouraging for me, it's a good starting point for the year."
McNulty also played down any feeling of disappointment about the result, admitting he wasn't placing much emphasis on the O'Byrne Cup. "We never decided, at the start of the year, to be highly successful in the O'Byrne Cup," explained the Laois manager. "The O'Byrne Cup is about trying players and seeing how different players get on in different positions. It was a very experimental team for Laois, and for Wicklow, and they came out the better today, and there is no real significance to today's result."
With four players making their competitive senior debuts for Laois, it was an opportunity for some to lay down a marker for the rest of the year. Of the new recruits, Robbie Kehoe impressed at corner back, and while McNulty admitted he was pleased with the performance of the O'Dempsey's man, he was just one player who caught his eye. "Robbie was strong, he'll stake a claim for a place on the panel so I would say well done to him, as well as several other players who played well, I was happy with a number of performances there today."
Having held the lead so late in the game, Laois will feel as though this was a game they let slip through their fingers, although the manager felt Wicklow ultimately deserved the win. "You have to give credit to the team, at one point we were seven points down and to bring it back to a draw and go in front showed tremendous character, and little bit more composure near the end, we could have won the match, although I think it would have been unjustifiably so. Over the 70 minutes I thought Wicklow were the better side today, you have to give credit where it is due, and over the 70 minutes they were the better team."
Over in the Wicklow dressing room, former Laois manager Mick O'Dwyer was pleased with how his side repsonded to the late onslaught from Laois. "We nearly blew it after playing well and running in some good scores but the lads dug in again when they had to in the last few minutes. After being so long without a game, it's always good to get back in action. Both sides will be the better for that. I'd be happy enough with the overall display, even if lads are bit rusty after being off for so long."
For Laois, the attention now turns to an Athlone IT side who were comprehensively beaten by Louth, 2-15 to 0-4, on Sunday. It will be another chance for McNulty to run the rule over his panel, and he confirmed on Sunday he would be making changes for this weekend's game. "The next day out we're playing Athlone IT, so it will be a changed team all round, there will be new players tried in new positions, it will be a very different team."
How the team lines out the next day remains to be seen, but one interesting change made against Wicklow saw Mark Timmons brought in at midfield, so the Graiguecullen man could be given an extended run-out in that position this weekend. Donie Brennan is another who could feature this weekend, having fallen out of favour under McNulty's predecessor Sean Dempsey.
Mchael Finlay impressed at corner forward, hitting three points against Wicklow, two of them from placed balls in the second half when Laois really needed them. Those aiming to stake a claim for a place on the panel will need to impress with whatever chances they are given, however, as McNulty confirmed after the Wicklow game that he currently has a panel of 36 players, which will be cut down between now and the beginning of the league.
Given Athlone's struggles against Louth, Laois will be expected to pick up their first win in Portarlington this Sunday, which would then qualify them for the last four in the competition. When that game would be played remains to be seen, as it will depend on when the postponed first round games can be played off. Along with Laois and Athlone IT, Kilkenny, Longford and Wexford have also found themselves in the Shield competition.
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