Laois will come with revenge on their minds

National Hurling League Division 1B

Eamonn Kelly
Eamonn Kelly

Damian Stack

It's at times like this that we're reminded the world of hurling is a very small one indeed.

Kerry v Laois, Sunday, February 12, Austin Stack Park, 2pm

It's not even so much that here, at the start of February, Kerry embark upon a National Hurling League campaign with a clash against Laois for the second year running, it's that a crucial game in the Kingdom's season comes down to a clash with their former manager, Eamonn Kelly.

Last year was Kerry's first without him as boss and the do-or-die game of their season - the final game of the Leinster round robin - saw then Kerry boss Ciarán Carey face off against his direct predecessor for a place in the quarter-finals.

Kelly, obviously, has moved on from Offaly since then and taken the reins of a Laois side that has been on something of a downward trajectory ever since their breakthrough victory over Offaly in 2015.

That Laois team, Seamus Plunkett's Laois team, had been building towards that 2015 season for a couple of years and once they reached their peak it proved impossible to sustain. In short they were at the end of a cycle, not at the beginning. The number of retirements they've had since then proves that.

It's Kelly's task now to rejuvenate them and their fortunes and that seems to be exactly what he's been doing. The squad he has assembled is one of the youngest the county has had in quite some time with the vast majority of players in their early to mid twenties.

Their Walsh Cup campaign was reasonably encouraging - they kept to within six points of Galway for instance, 1-19 to 0-16 - despite the fact they were missing a number of their most important players, Cha Dwyer and PJ Scully, to college commitments.

There have been signs that Kelly is hitting upon a winning formula. As Kerry players and supporters will attest, Kelly is an excellent coach and motivator. With Scully and centre-forward Patrick Whelan up front Laois should have more than enough firepower to trouble Kerry.

At the back Kelly seems to have hit upon a decent formula too with Leigh Bergin slotted in at full-back having previously been a wing-back with the blue and white. Meanwhile, full-back Ryan Mullaney is slotting in at wing-back effectively in Bergin's stead.

It's important too to remember that they owe Kerry one after a twin set of league defeats last year. They and their manager will be strongly motivated to see off Kerry this time around and despite Kerry's impressive form against them there's every chance that they will get the revenge they're looking for.

As of Tuesday afternoon they were the bookies favourites to do so and that, to us, seems about right. Kerry are going to be missing some very important players for this weekend's game.

Neither O'Leary brother will be available. When they were absent last year Kerry quite often struggled badly to win ball on the half-forward line, although with Mikey and Padraig Boyle available for selection Kerry probably should be able to cope.

The likely loss of John Egan is another hammer blow, same goes for Rory Horgan. It's a shame too for Kerry that Tom Murnane isn't yet ready to return to the fray, his strength and nous and all round ability would prove invaluable.

Tommy Casey's injury, meanwhile, looks set to limit Kerry's options around the middle of the park. We do suspect, however, that Kilmoyley's Paudie O'Connor or John Griffin (or both) will take a place in the side.

All these injuries leave new boss Fintan O'Connor in a relatively difficult position for his opening game. Yes Kerry will eventually be even stronger in terms of personnel this year than last - the addition of Jordan Conway and Tomás O'Connor, the returns from injury of Padraig Boyle and Paud Costello ensure that - but it seems a distinct possibility that Kerry will start this league slowly.

There's no harm in that in and of itself. The nature of this league is such that Kerry are more likely than not going to be in a relegation play-off at the end of the campaign come what may.

Still with both Laois and Offaly coming to Tralee this year would seem to be a great opportunity to avoid the relegation play-off. A defeat this Sunday would ensure that they wouldn't - Kerry can't be expected to get a result against any of Limerick, Galway and Wexford.

It's a pretty powerful incentive for this Kerry team to avoid a relegation play-off, a strong enough incentive to drive them to victory over Laois despite their injury worries? It could be.

On this occasion, however, we get the feeling that Laois might be that little bit more motivated and in a better place in terms of preparation, having had their management team in place sooner than Kerry had.

Without ruling anything out, at this stage it does seems as though Laois are better positioned.

Verdict: Laois

Kerryman

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