Kelly relishing Tribe step up in class for unbeaten Laois
Trial by Tribesmen - that's the challenge facing Laois hurlers in the Walsh Cup Group One clash at Rathdowney tomorrow.
It's not so much that win, lose, or draw, the result will send pulses soaring in the O'Moore County on Monday; Laois will not even face a full-strength Galway.
But for new manager Eamonn Kelly and his backroom team, which includes former Limerick skipper Ollie Moran and ex-Tipperary star Conor Gleeson, the performance and attitude of the home players is the priority.
Even allowing for the early season nature of Walsh Cup matches in January, Galway under Micheál Donoghue present a big step up in class from Laois' previous opponents NUIG and DIT.
A 3-18 to 0-22 opening victory over the Galway college finished better than it started, with the students leading by nine points close to half-time.
Last Sunday's outing against DIT yielded a more comfortable victory, this time by 4-27 to 1-17.
Too easy, in one sense, but the hallmark of the Kilkennys and Tipperarys of the hurling world is that once they sense blood, they tear into the carcass of a wounded opponent and rack up as many scores as possible.
So far, a young panel - Kelly estimates the average age as 22-23 - shorn of some likely first-teamers through injury and without the inspiration of the retired Willie Hyland, has done all that has been asked of them by the management.
Contrast that with the resources available to Galway boss Donoghue, who dropped stalwarts including Fergal Moore, Andy Smith, Cyril Donnellan, Iarla Tannian and David Collins from his squad for the 2017 campaign.
Tipperary native Kelly, who succeeded Seamus 'Cheddar' Plunkett in November, is just looking for enthusiastic, committed hurlers to see where that takes Laois this year.
"We haven't had much time to do development work, but I really enjoy working with the Laois players," he says.
"They're working hard, their attitude is great, and I've had great support from the county board, so it makes life easy, but we can't get excited about beating the college teams.
"Galway are without some players as well, so this match will let us see how stand.
"The main thing is that we're building for the League (Division 1B). We've got Kerry and then Offaly. There's not much between the three teams," says Kelly.
Those matches will carry extra interest, as the Kildangan native faces counties he has previously managed.
He took Kerry to victory in the 2015 Christy Ring Cup and promotion to Division 1B.
Kelly then took charge of Offaly, lasting just one season as he stepped down after a qualifier defeat to Wexford last year.
After that experience, Kelly said he did not intend to go back into inter-county management, and took some stick when he agreed to manage Laois.
His decision was influenced by Gleeson's belief that hurling in the O'Moore County is of a higher quality than is appreciated by outsiders. Gleeson's insight came from experience, as he won a county senior championship with Rathdowney-Errill in 2014.
Has Kelly any regrets about jumping into the hot-seat at a struggling hurling county, albeit one he believes has the potential to make progress?
"No, I didn't intend to come back to inter-county, but I am enjoying it. I have friends in Laois and I knew the good work done by Cheddar," he stresses.
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