AIB ALL-IRELAND CLUB SFC SEMI-FINAL
PORTLAOISE (Laois) v KILMURRY-IBRICKANE (Clare),
(Gaelic Grounds, Tomorrow 2.30, TG4 deferred)
A MEASURE of Portlaoise's towering ambition could be gleaned from the words of their manager, John Mulligan, in the immediate wake of their provincial coronation.
"We have won Leinster but we only see this as a stepping stone," Mulligan declared after watching 14 Portlaoise men grind out a fully deserved four-point win over Garrycastle. "We are in with the big boys now."
Some observers may question whether Kilmurry-Ibrickane qualify as 'big boys' under the Trade Descriptions Act, given their location (a sprawling rural parish lacking in numbers) and reputation (consistent big achievers in Clare and Munster but yet to reach an All-Ireland final).
Still, what cannot be denied is that Kilmurry are a battle-hardened lot who aren't in the business of rolling over against vaunted opposition. They don't score much but they've conceded even less during this campaign.
Portlaoise, when in the mood, have the ability to shoot the lights out. Ergo, something must give at the Gaelic Grounds tomorrow.
From the outset of their Leinster campaign it was apparent that Portlaoise eyes were trained on the overall St Patrick's Day prize. The core of this team had come agonisingly close to the big windfall before -- namely in 2005, when Ballina Stephenites defied the usual script of Mayo teams in Croke Park by returning west with the Andy Merrigan Cup.
Five years have passed without a chance to get back on the Croker stage. Post-2005, their next two provincial campaigns were a major let-down (crushed by St Vincent's in '07, edged out by Rhode in '08). But, having completed a hat-trick of Laois titles last autumn, the O'Moore County kingpins have belatedly married performance to reputation.
Their first Leinster triumph in five years revealed several strings to the Portlaoise bow. They were positively metronomic against a meek Mattock Rangers (2-21 to 0-2) and a leg-weary Seneschalstown (3-12 to 1-6).
They capitalised on a couple of lucky breaks against Clara -- most notably when the weather gods intervened with the Offaly champions ahead by a point. The refixture could have been a lot closer if Clara had converted a first-half penalty; instead it turned into a second-half cruise for Portlaoise who prevailed by 1-9 to 0-3.
For all their prolific ways, it was Portlaoise's ability to battle through a potential crisis that impressed in the Leinster final. They were a man down from the 28th minute following Peter McNulty's second yellow and, when a Gary Dolan goal cut Garrycastle's deficit to a single point, it could have been the cue for sustained pressure on the numerically challenged Laois men. Instead, they went straight down the pitch to strike their own priceless three-pointer courtesy of Barry Fitzgerald.
Eleven weeks have passed since the Leinster final. Bridging this long gap is a perennial conundrum for provincial club champions, but Mulligan is hopeful that Portlaoise have struck the right balance.
"We had a plan after the Leinster final where we were going to change our training routine and get off the grass. The bad weather came then so we had no choice," he told the local media this week.
"Our plan involved going down to the Leisure Centre in Portlaoise ... we got training done in the pool and we got the use of the astro-turf pitches and the gym. And we've used the boxing club as well. So that was great variation for the lads. By the time January came and we had planned to get back onto grass, the weather eased off so everything went to plan for us.
"The one thing we didn't want to do was take a break. We reckon our fitness levels are as good as they were for the Leinster final, but we really won't know until we get into the heat of the battle on Sunday."
Kilmurry-Ibrickane do have one obvious advantage -- they've already shaken off the post-Christmas cobwebs with their late January trek to Ruislip, where they faced Tir Chonaill Gaels at the quarter-final stage.
The scoreline paints a grim picture (1-4 to 0-3) and the Clare Champion didn't mince its words: "Turgid Kilmurry Struggle Into Final Four" ran the headline, while the intro said the performance (admittedly on a pitch more resembling a bog) indicated that Kilmurry will be watching the club final on March 17, not competing in it.
Perfect dressing room ammunition for manager Michael McDermott? Maybe so. Yet Kilmurry don't seem genetically programmed to register big scores -- they've averaged 0-9 in their last four games, and just 0-7 in their last two.
On that basis, they may have to turn tomorrow's duel into a battle of attrition, and that's easier said than done given (a) Portlaoise's ability to move the ball slickly and at pace and (b) the loss of wing-back Declan Callinan, suspended after being implicated by TV evidence against Tir Chonaill.
Paul Cahillane, the ex-Glasgow Celtic youth, has been a high-scoring revelation for Portlaoise, while Fitzgerald has been every bit as prolific. But perhaps their key strength is the number of players who have performed at a higher level, be it senior or underage for Laois. They aren't a one-man team. And they should be marching to Dublin on Paddy's Day.
p ODDS: Portlaoise 1/4, Draw 9/1, Kilmurry 7/2
p VERDICT: Portlaoise