Friday 18 August 2017

Walsh striving to upset big guns

SIX years ago, when Laois met Dublin in the first round of the Leinster SHC in Nowlan Park, they rattled 4-14 past the city boys to ease into a semi-final against Wexford. How times have changed.

The Dubs are now Division 1 champions while Laois are desperately trying to swim out of the backwaters of Division 2.

They are not that far off -- third for the last two years in that annual musical chairs behind the top two, and joint third with Antrim this year behind Limerick and Clare.

But there's a chasm between the divisions and, if Laois' life wasn't hard enough, the landscape in their own province has shifted dramatically too.

Galway and Antrim have now been drafted into their summer and it is the Saffrons they face again tonight in their provincial opener in Portlaoise.

Emigration

Throw in a new manager (Brendan Fennelly), the loss of key defenders to emigration and the loss of several key forwards due to disinterest, all in one year, and it is safe to say that life as a Laois hurler is no box of chocolates.

James Walsh (27) doesn't argue, but his agreement comes with a grin.

"It has its ups and downs," the Ballinakill midfielder says. "It's not as rewarding as in counties like Kilkenny or Dublin, or the likes of Wexford or Offaly during the 90s, but you just plough on.

"I enjoy it. You only get so many years to try and make a mark at inter-county and you have to try to seize those opportunities."

Laois, unfortunately, tend to squander plenty, like when lost to Carlow in the league this year despite being able to beat Clare. And even last summer, when they gave the Dubs a right rattle, they shot 17 wides, went down to 14 men with a half-hour to go and eventually lost by nine.

In his seventh senior season, Walsh is now Laois captain. And he is certain of one thing: life in Division 2 is hurling's self-fulfilling prophecy.

"I think the league should be a 12-team Division 1," he says. "It's very hard for the likes of ourselves, Antrim, Offaly and Carlow to compete with the likes of Kilkenny, Dublin, Galway and Wexford in Leinster because they've had a higher standard of hurling all season.

"You really notice the speed at which Division 1 teams move the ball. And they make very few mistakes. You can't afford to make mistakes in Division 1 and it's a case of habit for them."

As a teacher in Portlaoise CBS, Walsh does see some light at the end of the tunnel.

The 'Setanta Project', designed by former All Star Pat Critchley to upskill the county's 10 to 13-year-olds, is now in its fifth year.

Others may be sceptical, but Walsh sees green shoots.

"You can see it coming through. The standard of hurling in our first and second years, compared to our fifth and sixth years, is actually higher. The younger lads seem to have that bit more skill," he says.

He also feels Laois should look at another innovation: entering a combined colleges team in schools' Division 1, just as Dublin did this decade, which yielded them an All-Ireland colleges title in 2006.

"Laois tried it in recent years and it wasn't that successful, but clubs and schools need to get behind it again," he says, arguing that Laois kids need to experience that speed of hurling.

Today he is back at the coal-face, facing an Antrim side that Laois beat by four points in the league.

"They had a man sent off in the second half so that flattered us," he admits. "Antrim probably see themselves more as a championship team too so they'll come with a very different attitude.

"When you look at us, compared to Antrim, they're a very big, physical team so we'll just have to come with a high intensity to match their physicality and stand up to them."

Irish Independent

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