Leinster is now a competition in name only
Little light at the end of tunnel for chasing pack
After helping Laois secure their place in the Leinster final for the first time since 2007, Ross Munnelly stopped briefly to address the assembled media in the tunnel under the Cusack Stand.
Munnelly didn't have much time. He wanted to go and see first-hand what they would face in the provincial final.
As it happened, by the time the Laois veteran made it pitch-side, Dublin had already bagged two goals in their Leinster SFC semi-final clash against Longford and had effectively ended the game as a competition. They could hardly have made a more emphatic statement about their intentions for the summer.
The weekend's action brought the Leinster championship back into focus. Almost 40,000 were in attendance in Croke Park to watch the double-header of Laois-Carlow and Dublin-Longford.
As expected, Jim Gavin's All-Ireland champions were in cruise control and are priced at 1/100 to win against Laois in the final.
The teams behind Dublin are well matched, as witnessed by the results this summer, but the Leinster championship - with Dublin enjoying a golden era - is a competition in name only.
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Much has changed since Laois's last Leinster final appearance. Dublin won their third title on the bounce that day, winning 3-14 to 1-14, perhaps hinting at the dominance that was to come but the eastern championship wasn't such a foregone conclusion back then.
If anything it had just been through a golden era in terms of competitiveness. Since 2000, there had been five different winners with Meath, Kildare, Laois and Westmeath also collecting the Delaney Cup.
This time around, Dublin are looking for an eighth title on the bounce. And with Meath already out and Kildare wobbling, Laois can now claim to be the best of the rest in the province.
It's been a long road back for Laois. When he left the Croke Park pitch after the Leinster final in 2007, Munnelly couldn't have known that it would be more than a decade before he'd get the chance to play on that stage again.
Laois and Munnelly could have reasonably expected more. They had spent that spring in Division 1B, the final campaign before the current four-division format was introduced.
Just three years earlier they had won a provincial title and while they went down to Dublin by six points in the '07 final, it didn't feel like they'd have to wait 11 years before they got another crack at it.
"I never thought like that," Munnelly replied when asked if he thought he'd ever get to another provincial decider.
"I always tried to get a bit of work done and stick playing with Laois, rowing in behind every different set-up, keep going, keep striving and eventually things turn. And we are now back to Croke Park for a Leinster final and it is going to be a tough, tough day out for us."
Of the teams that started in 2007, only Munnelly and Stephen Cluxton are in line to start with the likes of Bernard Brogan and Brendan Quigley out injured - although Cluxton's fitness is now also a concern.
Munnelly's longevity marks him out as one of the longest-serving players in the country but his desire for the game remains as strong as ever.
"I am just enjoying the youth in the set-up and lads driving each other on, driving lads like me on who are that little bit older," he said.
"You are always trying to find a new level and a new place to go, a new angle to do something a little bit better and you are forced to do that as well because the speed of these lads coming behind. That is what keeps driving us on and we will keep going for as long as we can this summer."
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Sunday saw Laois defeat Carlow for the third time this season after seeing them off twice during their successful league campaign, suggesting they have reached a consistency of performance that had eluded them for so long.
"We knew it was going to be such a tough game and it proved to be that, it was nip-and-tuck the whole way through, we didn't look any further than that.
"We are just relieved to get through and put in another good performance. Credit to Carlow, they have been fantastic all year, they have taken some good scalps as well and the proof is in the pudding today. It was a tough game but we now just have to get down and focused.
"We are also conscious that we are coming from such a low base. We had to work our way through Division 4 and we had a couple of tough days in it, a couple of games which went right down to the wire, over in London, against Carlow the first day and even the league final and today, there was only a kick of the ball between ourselves and Carlow.
"While we are finding our rhythm a bit we are also conscious there are far bigger tests ahead.
"While we are happy with our performances so far, we know there are going to be massive challenges ahead for us."
Challenges don't come any bigger than Dublin.