'We have unfinished business in this Leinster club series'
Portlaoise's Craig Rogers reckons a difficult local campaign has made his team a tighter outfit, as he tells Damian Lawlor
ONLY in Ireland would a team that has won seven consecutive county titles still have a point to prove.
That's the way Portlaoise feel. For Craig Rogers, their intelligent and jinking forward, football has followed a pattern. Win a county title, try to win Leinster, fail most years and then deal with the perception outside the county that they are a 'flaky' side.
Once more they drive into the provincial championship with massive motivation. A win today over Longford Slashers would only be the first step.
"The end goal is to go one step better than last year's Leinster final defeat to Ballymun, but there's absolutely no use thinking of that until we play Longford Slashers and try to deal with them first," Rogers says, well aware that the journey could come to an abrupt halt in Longford today.
There's a theory that the heavy pitches of this time of year do little to facilitate Portlaoise's attacking style of football. And despite a near dominance of their domestic championship over the past decade, there's a feeling that they emerge without the battle-hardened edge for the provincial and All-Ireland series. The stats point to underachievement: they have landed just two provincial titles in 2004 and 2009.
They remain on top of the provincial roll of honour, though, with a glorious spell in the 1980s helping them to seven titles. Rogers says he is more interested in meeting players who played on those teams down the street and being able to look them in the eye.
"You'd never hear any criticism about us around the town," he says. "But you'd like people to be proud of us all the same. There's an awful lot going on in Portlaoise in terms of other sports such as soccer and rugby.
"There are seven or eight serious soccer teams around the place alone. Rugby is big too. So our support base mightn't be as big as everyone would expect. But they are loyal and we know exactly who will be with us today.
"Maybe around the county, other clubs might feel we could have gone further over the years, and I suppose that would be the view around the province as well. But the bottom line is the players themselves feel there is a lot more in the tank and we know we should be going further. We don't need others to tell us that. There is serious motivation within the squad to make that happen."
Rogers captained Laois to the 2003 All-Ireland minor title and has been in splendid form in the Portlaoise attack. He challenges defences, makes splitting runs, wins frees and scores. He debuted for the county seniors in 2007 but didn't fit into the last Laois management's template and is not sure whether he will return to the fold.
"That minor title was a long time ago," he says. "I'm 27 now and I have to look after my job. I work from Tuesdays to Saturdays in Thurles as retail manager for Eurogear so it's demanding enough in that regard. The commute is 40 minutes – a lot of people have worse – but it still leaves me with a lot to do to fit in club training, so I have a lot on my plate with Portlaoise as it is. And, as I said, we have unfinished business in this club series. We have been watching the Slashers very carefully and studied their videos. They like to get men behind the ball and break quickly. They'll look to disrupt our style and that's something we have to cope with.
"There are no excuses anymore. We can't blame soft pitches; we can't look to not being tested in the Laois championship because this was probably our toughest season ever domestically. We just have to get out there and do our job."
Slashers recently won their second Longford title in three years and they easily dismissed Rathnew too so they come into this one in a rich vein. Portlaoise, however, have bundles of experience in their ranks; their under 21 side are motoring well and safely into a county final. Not only were the seniors beaten early in the Laois championship by Graigecullen this year, they were also pushed until the end by Arles-Killeen in the county decider. Arles-Killeen poured everything into preparing for that game, playing several Dublin clubs to steel themselves for their rivals.
Indeed, in the opening half they tore the Portlaoise inside backline to bits with Paul Kingston, a 19-year-old playing like a grizzled warrior, doing serious damage. A number of changes resulted in the champions' defence with Cahir Healy retreating to man-mark the full-forward.
With Healy's absence felt further out, Donie Brennan and Donie Kingston came more and more into the game. To their credit, though, Portlaoise hung on. That's what champions do – they die hard. They summoned Paul Cotter, Kevin Fitzpatrick and Zach Tuohy into action and those switches changed the course of the game – what a bench to boast.
"In hindsight, we were delighted with the kick in the ass that we got against Graigecullen and we got another serious test in the final," Rogers admits. "We were doing well in the earlier game with Graigecullen but we completely fell asleep, they took advantage of that and fair play to them. In the final we were a goal down and we had to call upon all our experience to get through. It was sticky to the end and we were not used to that. But it's great. We really welcome that."
Bringing on Tuohy injected a bit of fire into the rest of them too. The night before he had been man of the match for Ireland in their international rules first Test win against Australia but he drove straight from Cavan to Portlaoise to prepare for the county final. He came on for the last 10 minutes, meaning that he has contributed to six out of the last seven of the club's county titles despite holding down a professional career in the AFL. "It's a serious achievement," Rogers smiles. "Zach has the drive and energy to play for Portlaoise and he has never forgotten us. We have massive time for him and to be able to spring him was a serious trump card."
Was there any dissent among the other subs that he was introduced ahead of them? "Absolutely not. He is hugely respected for what he has done in his career and we know if he wasn't in Australia he would be the most committed player we have. Zach is liked by everyone and we're delighted when he comes back to us. He has helped put Portlaoise on the map by doing what he is doing and it's a privilege to share a dressing room with him."
There are plenty of other role models too; that's the thing about Portlaoise. Players like their captain Brian 'Bruno' McCormack, with 10 county medals, have led the way but Rogers feels the older guys are even hungrier now than they were a decade ago, especially since they have only landed one provincial medal during their fantastic seven-year winning stretch back home.
They know their winning run cannot last forever. Players will come and go; Cahir Healy is off travelling next year and you can never be sure when the fall will come.
"That's exactly it," Rogers continues. "That's why the couple of knocks this year have been brilliant; they really made us appreciate what we have. We're a tight bunch; we try to play good football which is a lot different to the style we mostly see at inter-county. It's very enjoyable and we have to appreciate what we have."
They go back into action with their eyes wide open. People doubted their hunger to win again in Laois but they silenced those critics. They'd relish the chance to do the same by going all the way in Leinster.
This afternoon they'll get a good measure of where they stand.