Quarter-finals much more likely than relegation

Leinster SHC: Kerry v Laois, Sunday, May 14, Austin Stack Park, 3pm

Ben Conroy of Laois in action against Darren Dineen of Kerry during the Allianz Hurling League Division 1B Relegation Play-Off in April
Ben Conroy of Laois in action against Darren Dineen of Kerry during the Allianz Hurling League Division 1B Relegation Play-Off in April

Damian Stack

To paraphrase the great Mario Balotelli, why always him?

Ever since he vacated the Kerry manager's job Eamonn Kelly has proven something of a nemesis for the Kingdom. We're not suggesting any bad blood, it's merely a fact that invariably in the two years since his departure Kerry's crunch games, be they in league or championship, have come against sides managed by the Tipp man.

This time last year Kerry faced a trip to Tullamore to take on his Offaly side for a place in the quarter-finals and it was just a few weeks ago that they travelled to Portlaoise with their status as a Division 1 hurling side on the line.

On both occasions Kerry came up short. Their former manager was the one left smiling at the end of both contests. It would really stick in the craw of these Kerry players were Kelly to triumph a third time in a crunch game.

It must be hugely frustrating too for these Kerry players that they find themselves in the position of needing to take something from the game in the first place. The performance against Meath could very well cost them a place in the quarter-finals.

Kerry are much better than what they showed that day and proved as much a week later with a vastly improved performance. Even the team which lined out against Westmeath looked a lot more convincing, there was a much better balance to it.

If Kerry start a similar team this weekend they're likely to play even better still. The O'Leary brothers, Brendan and Michael, will be that much closer to full fitness. Same goes for Padraig Boyle (who missed the Meath game) and Mikey Boyle (who broke his hand during the league).

For the first time in a long time it feels like Kerry are approaching something like their strongest starting fifteen, the unfortunate injuries to Patrick Kelly and Colum Harty (who was absolutely brilliant last time Kerry played Laois) not withstanding.

Still for all that Kerry will be underdogs. Laois have been moving really well in this championship so far and for all the talk that they're already qualified for the quarter-finals it's not as if they don't have anything to play for - topping the group guarantees a more favourable draw.

That, of course, is not to say that it's beyond the realms of possibility that Kerry might beat them and in doing so top the group (they would require Westmeath to beat Meath for that scenario to come to pass).

The Kingdom did beat Laois in the opening round of the league, they did push them all the way in that relegation play-off match. For sure there were times in both games where Laois looked like running away with it, but Kerry held firm in both games and found a way back.

Indeed, Kerry could have actually won that game in O'Moore Park a couple of weeks back. The predatory instincts of Padraig Boyle were denied by the upright late in that game, when a goal would almost certainly have won the game for Kerry.

What that game did show was that rarely is there much more than a puck of a ball between these two sides. Kerry should have it within them to give this Laois team a right rattle. Of course that's not to say it's going to be easy - anything but.

Laois' midfield of Ross King and Patrick Purcell did run the show in Portlaoise remember and this time around Kerry don't have Daniel Collins to call upon to curb them. Laois' forwards too seem to be moving incredibly well if their destruction of the Royals in Navan is anything to go by.

A win would probably give Kerry top spot in the group, but it's important to remember that relegation is not totally out of the question either. It's unlikely we would suggest, a narrow defeat would probably be enough to finish third (even a heavy defeat in the event of a Meath win would suffice).

Looking at all the possible combinations Kerry are most likely either going to finish in first or in third in the group, with third marginally more likely on the run of form to date. Either way it's all to play for this Sunday afternoon.

With their fate in their own hands Kerry hopefully will be bold and take the game to Laois.

Verdict: Laois


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