'It is disappointing to the point of frustration' - Eddie Brennan on stay-away Laois hurlers
Boss is determined to build on last year's success but admits 'mixed emotions' over Championship clash with mentor Cody
It was a little over 12 months ago that Eddie Brennan voiced his exasperation over several players turning down invitations to join his Laois hurling squad - back then few would have predicted the 2019 season that followed.
The O'Moore men were the story of the hurling summer. Joe McDonagh Cup glory was followed with a sensational defeat of Dublin seven days later as they set up a quarter-final clash with subsequent All-Ireland champions Tipperary.
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Laois were the talk of the country with their giant-killing heroics and while their season ended in a valiant defeat to the Premier, hurling was on a high in the county heading into the club championship.
When Brennan - now in his second season as Laois boss - put the call out to several of those who turned him down the year previous, it was expected that the answer might be different, but little has changed.
Portlaoise dual star Ciarán McEvoy is the only player to have been tempted back into the hurling fold with Brennan acknowledging a "frustrating" situation, given the heights reached last summer and the opportunities which lie ahead in 2020.
"It is disappointing to the point of frustration. No matter what you do, you land in and say you're going to have to prove yourself and show your wares here and I would say that when we got the players buying into it, they were able to perform," Brennan says.
"We convinced them that we have an idea where we're going with this and that we know what we're doing. Was it perfect? Probably not, but it went up a notch or two from where it was.
"You'd be more than pleased with that side of things. I would have felt that we were in a good place to talk to lads this year and get lads that maybe might have been iffy for different reasons, to commit but they didn't so it is frustrating."
Kilkenny legend Brennan will not lose any sleep on those opting out of county duty, however, and the eight-time All-Ireland is fully committed to developing the wealth of talent that is at his disposal.
Youngsters like Pádraig Delaney and Aaron Dunphy excelled last summer and with a place in the 2020 Leinster SHC secured, he looks forward to the exposure which his squad will gain from those high profile games.
"I'd have hoped that we might have got a better response this year, but I'm not going to dwell on it. You work with what you have and I'll gladly invest in the guys that we have," the 41-year-old says.
"All that we look for is guys that are going to give everything and that they will be coachable and willing to work hard. If you have that, that's your fundamental and it will serve you well going forward.
"You look at the pictures that emerged from that fortnight and you say it was a roller-coaster for guys that had suffered a lack of success over the past couple of years, guys like Matthew Whelan, who has seen a lot of hard times and stuck at it.
"For younger lads coming in, when you're 19 or 20 you may be unsure and the easiest thing in the world is to say that the boys are going nowhere, but to be fair they got a taste of what it is and there'll be opportunities in Leinster this year.
"It's going to be very difficult but if you're a young ambitious hurler that's willing to go a little bit further, that's the challenge and there's a huge incentive. Those big games are what those lads would want and it will drive them on."
Championship games at home against Galway and Wexford will be huge occasions, but it is an away tie which stands out for Brennan as the visit to Nowlan Park on May 16/17 pits master against apprentice.
Brennan's entire Kilkenny career was served under Brian Cody and he admits he is "dreading" the thought of returning home to face off against the 11-time All-Ireland-winning boss.
"It's something that I've been churning over in my head. I'm very mixed on it because you are who you are, I'm a Kilkenny person and I left Croke Park very hurt in August because it's who you are and it comes out in you," the Graigue-Ballycallan clubman says.
"But I'm looking forward to the challenge of seeing if I'm capable of getting a team ready for Nowlan Park because I know it will be one of the ultimate tests of what's in a lad's belly. You're a bit like the devil arriving in to Nowlan Park.
"It'll be mixed emotions either way but I'm looking forward to seeing how the lads will measure up because I look at that match - they are all important, obviously - as a test of these guys in terms of where are they at but it's something I'm definitely not looking forward to in a way."
Laois will be hoping to build on their extraordinary season but they must do so without a host of familiar faces as Charles Dwyer, Stephen 'Picky' Maher and Ben Conroy have opted out for a variety of reasons.
They are also on the back foot in terms of injury with exciting Ballyfin attacker Éanna Lyons a "huge loss" after suffering the curse of the cruciate knee ligament injury in their first training session of the new season.
Leading scorer Mark Kavanagh is also "in a bit of bother" and likely to miss their entire league campaign in the new-look Division 1 with surgery needed on an old war wound but Brennan remains positive.
Few thought Laois would rise in 2019 and expectations are likely to be tempered once again for next season, given their casualty list. But as Dublin and Mattie Kenny found out to their detriment, any underestimation of Laois could end up in tears.