'Heading to the gym on a December night is the same for everyone, whether you're from Kilkenny or Laois'
THEY dallied late in O'Moore Park, Portlaoise on Wednesday night, enjoying the afterglow of a rare hurling treat.
Four days earlier, the small band of Laois supporters who travelled to Tullamore for the Leinster senior quarter-final clash with Dublin left O'Connor Park wondering if hurling had any future in the county. It really was difficult to locate even the tiniest fragment of hope in a desert of despair.
Laois were deplorably bad last Saturday, swatted aside by a Dublin team that had secured a semi-final clash with Kilkenny long before half-time.
The general view that was it would be the same with the U-21s on Wednesday. Dublin, Leinster champions for the past two seasons, were so well-fancied to power into the semi-final that only diehard Laois loyalists turned out in O'Moore Park. Most were still there long after Tony Doran's battling young warriors had won by four points in what was their county's first victory in the U-21 championship for 11 years.
The supporters included Niall Rigney, a heroic performer in the Laois jersey for 15 years and a man who later managed them. He took over in the summer of 2008 after yet another crisis, precipitated by the departure of Damien Fox, which was prompted by a dismal response to training.
Rigney's arrival stabilised the scene. An upswing followed but he left after the 2010 championship which ended with a qualifier defeat by Carlow. He felt he had done as much as he could and, anyway, he knew the critics were massing.
"You'd have lads saying that Laois shouldn't lose to Carlow. That ignores all the good work done in Carlow, but a mindset is hard to change. It's a problem because it's not dealing in reality," says Rigney.
Cross-border managerial traffic usually goes from strong to weak counties but it was different in Rigney's case. His talents were recognised in 'The Village,' one of the cradles of Kilkenny hurling and, by the start of 2011, he was managing James Stephens. By late October, they were Kilkenny champions.
He's still in charge and enjoying the experience immensely but his heart remains in Laois, which is why he was almost as delighted as those directly involved after the U-21 win over Dublin.
"It was fantastic to see so many Laois people out on the pitch after the game. We might not have as many hurling supporters in Laois as some other counties but there's still a dedicated following who are looking for a team to support. Give them a bit of encouragement and they'll get behind you," he says.
Rigney has time to reflect on the direction hurling is taking as he travels up and down to Kilkenny and has reached some interesting conclusions. He believes that pessimism and negativity come easily in counties below the top tier, but the impact can be minimised if handled properly.
There's now a growing sense that hurling's elite are pulling further clear of the rest, a theory supported by the predictable destination of the senior All-Ireland titles, where the last 13 have been shared between Cork, Tipperary and Kilkenny, with the latter winning eight.
Just below them (in no particular order) are Dublin, Waterford and Galway, followed by a lower tier, comprising Clare, Limerick, Offaly and Wexford.
After that, Antrim, Laois, Westmeath and Carlow make up the remaining quartet in the Liam MacCarthy band.
The Laois experience over the past year is worrying. Beaten by Antrim in the 2011 Leinster championship, they lost to Cork by 34 points in the qualifiers. They dropped out of Division 1B and took a 22-point beating from Dublin last week.
U-21 bonus notwithstanding, those results raise the question as to whether the downward spiral will continue. And if so, will it lead to contagion among others? Will the gaps between super-rich, middle class, coping class and the rest continue to widen?
A county like Laois could become an accurate bellwether in the search for that answer. They may not have won a Leinster senior title since 1949 or reached a final since 1985 but they were usually quite competitive.
Even in the 1990s when they failed to win a single game in Leinster, they had close calls in '98 (lost to Kilkenny by three points), '97 (lost to Offaly by one point), '95 (lost to Kilkenny by two) and '93 (lost to Wexford by three). With no back door, their season ended there.
Rigney played throughout that decade and recalls how Laois always believed they could beat anybody on a given day. That's no longer the case and Rigney fears that a negative mindset has infected enough of the senior squad.
"It's too late for some of them. There are a lot of good lads in there but there are also fellas who won't fight the fight when it's put it up to them," he says. "They'll do it for their clubs but not for Laois. Maybe it's a mindset thing -- sure we aren't going anywhere, so where's the point?
"It's easy to blame the managers but they all can't be wrong. Damien (Fox) got it before I came in; I'm sure I'd have got it if I had tried to stay on in 2010; Brendan (Fennelly) got in last year and Teddy (McCarthy) will get it if things go wrong again in the Limerick game. There comes a time when players have to stand up and do things for themselves."
It gives Rigney no pleasure to question the attitude of some players, but facts don't lie. As one of the county's hurling icons, he succeeded in getting most of the available talent to commit to the panel, but other managers haven't.
"It shouldn't come down to the manager. Every player should want to play for his county. Not just play either but put in the hard work that goes with it," he says.
"I can't understand the mindset which says 'I can't be bothered with the county panel' or the one which says 'I'll go in but I won't put everything I have into it.' Once that happens there's damn all a manager can do."
Having played and managed Laois with little chance of winning titles before moving on to James Stephens, where's he surrounded by high achievers, Rigney is well-placed to assess the influence that expectations bring.
For instance, isn't is easier for the likes of Eoin Larkin and Jackie Tyrrell, two James Stephens players he knows well, to commit themselves totally to the cause, knowing that the rewards are likely to follow, rather than for a player in Laois who is unlikely to get anywhere near the big occasions?
"I had that conversation with Eoin one night and he was asking what it was like to play for a county where there wasn't much hope of winning anything big," he replies.
"There's no doubt it takes a special effort but the drive to do the very best for yourself and your county should spur you on.
"And don't think for one minute that the prospect of winning titles is all that keeps the Kilkenny lads going.
"I know from dealing with Eoin, Jackie and Matthew (Ruth) that there's a lot more to it than that. Hurling is what they do and the drive to be the very best for as long as they can is a huge motivation. Anyone in any county can strive for that but do they?
"I've seen Kilkenny lads going with club and county right into November, yet they're back doing their gym work straight away. Heading to the gym on a December night is the same for everyone, whether you're from Kilkenny or Laois."
Despite concerns that counties like Laois are falling further out of the top loop, Rigney believes there are solutions. He cites the Setanta and Cuchullain juvenile coaching programmes in Laois where his former county colleague Pat Critchley is doing valuable work.
"It's the way forward. Start there and there's no reason why young lads from Laois can't be as good as anywhere else," insists Rigney.
"Further up, it's the job of the county board to put the right men in charge of county teams and give them the necessary support. It's then up to the managers to get the right structures in place. After that, it's up to the players. Do they have the required ambition to take things on?
"The same applies in other counties. Take Westmeath. You'd have to say they're making progress. The ambition seems to be there. Look at how they took on Galway over the past two years.
"Okay, so they lost by fairly big margins in the end but they battled and battled all the way against a county that's in the hunt for the All-Ireland. Could you say the same about every Laois player last Saturday? Afraid not."
Essentially, his diagnosis of the overall hurling scene is simple. The strong counties will pull further away from the rest, but only if they're allowed.
"I see the Kilkenny lads all the time. All-Ireland medals falling out of their pockets and not an air or grace between the whole lot of them. There's no sense of 'we're the best, go and admire us.'
"It's the same with Brian (Cody). It's the way Kilkenny hurling works. The ambition is there to be the best and the work goes with it. Obviously, the talent is there too but other counties would be surprised by what might follow if they started with the hard work and the ambition," says Rigney.
As for Laois, two underage lights have flickered amid the darkness in the senior tunnel. The U-21s' success captured headlines, while the minors are going well too, having beaten Westmeath and Offaly to book a Leinster semi-final clash with Wexford on June 24.
"It's a start," says Rigney. "And every journey has to start somewhere."