Sunday 18 August 2019

Ciarán Whelan: Laois have skills to give Dublin a real Leinster final test

Laois manager John Sugrue and Ross Munnelly celebrate after their victory over Carlow in Croke Park. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Laois manager John Sugrue and Ross Munnelly celebrate after their victory over Carlow in Croke Park. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Ciarán Whelan

It was not so long ago that a proposed meeting between Dublin and Laois in a Leinster SFC final would bring with it a heightened sense of excitement and anticipation.

Unfortunately, such is the current profile and status of the respective counties that Sunday’s provincial final has almost crept up upon us, certainly in contrast to the buzz that accompanied their Leinster decider back in 2007.

That is largely because the prevailing perception is one of Dublin dominance and that they really just have to turn up on Sunday to secure their eighth successive provincial success.

In many ways, it’s hard to disagree with that, when we have become accustomed to Dublin dishing out hammerings to all and sundry at this stage of the championship.

However, I think that we might see a closer contest on Sunday and I cannot see Laois getting the runaround in the same manner as Meath, Westmeath and Kildare have in recent years.

Firstly, they arrive at the final on merit and I don’t think anyone could argue with the statement that they are the second best team in Leinster.

I think people might be doing them a disservice when they discuss how they played against Carlow in the semi-final but that was just a case of them doing what they had to do to get the job done.

I thought that they were very disciplined that day and didn’t allow Carlow to dictate the terms of engagement. That reflects well on their management team.

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Certainly, their manager John Sugrue deserves a lot of credit for making Laois competitive again and that was not an easy task, given the tendency to self-destruct that exists in the county.

From a position of great promise only 11 years ago, Laois have failed to build on those relatively solid foundations for a variety of reasons and circumstances and they have lost a lot of support from within the county as a result.

However, those supporters will be returning in decent numbers on Sunday and they can arrive at Croke Park in confident mood, given the impressive displays that the team have produced so far this year.

Winning the National League Division 4 title has been great for the team’s confidence and they have carried that on with lively performances against both Wexford and Westmeath.

Winning matches on a consistent basis, like Laois have, brings both confidence and togetherness in the camp and they possess plenty of decent footballers who will relish the occasion.

Of course, they will be without their captain, Stephen Attride, and it’s very unfortunate that he misses out. However, the team is still sprinkled with more than average footballers.

Colm Begley is playing some of the best football of his life and they have a strong midfield pairing in John O’Loughlin and Kieran Lillis.

If they can get some kind of platform around the middle third, something that is easier said than done against a rejuvenated Michael Darragh Macauley and the brilliant Brian Fenton, then the likes of Donie Kingston, Ross Munnelly and Paul Kingston could pose problems for the Dublin defence.

That defence may not have Stephen Cluxton as its last line on Sunday and one would imagine Laois will look to expose the inexperience of Evan Comerford, should the Ballymun Kickhams player start in goal.

Comerford’s possible presence there on Sunday may well benefit Dublin in the long-term anyway and it will be interesting to see how he copes.

Equally, giving valuable game-time to both Jack McCaffrey and Cian O’Sullivan will also be on manager Jim Gavin’s mind.    

Another area that Gavin and his back-room team will be focussed on is solidifying the forward line with the Super 8s on the agenda.

By my reckoning, Dean Rock, Ciarán Kilkenny, Con O’Callaghan and Paul Mannion are nailed on in terms of featuring from the start and Brian Howard could well feature there too.

However, where Howard plays will be intriguing and while Dublin have options in attack, they may not be as deep as in previous campaigns due to the absences of both Diarmuid Connolly and Bernard Brogan.  

Dublin’s defence could well be tested far more than it was against both Wicklow and Longford and Laois could well look to play some long, early ball to test that particular area.

If they manage to get a positive return from that, then I expect the match to be far more competitive than many observers predict.

Laois are a dangerous opponent in the sense that they have nothing to lose and I get the impression that they will back themselves on Sunday and really test Dublin from the first whistle.

They play a traditional style of football which the players are comfortable with and it is reaping dividends in terms of the results and progress that they are unquestionably making.

Of course, an early goal for Dublin could well puncture their optimism but there was a degree of sloppiness that permeated Dublin’s play in the third quarter against Longford that offers hope to Laois.

The O’Moore County men have a group of core players and leaders that are motoring well at the minute and those players should have sufficient experience not to be overawed by Sunday’s occasion.

You get the sense that they don’t really fear Dublin and while they are unlikely to have enough quality at their disposal to overcome the Dubs, I get the strong impression that we might have one of the most competitive Leinster finals that we have experienced in recent times.

Having said that, it’s hard to see anything other than a Dublin victory, as the holders fine-tune their preparations for sterner examinations of their credentials later this summer.

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