Sunday 25 August 2019

'The lads are playing with a smile on their face' - Niall Rigney on Laois' journey from dark days to the sweetest of victories

Tipperary v Laois, 4pm, Croke Park, live RTÉ 2

Willie Dunphy celebrates a score for Laois during the win over Dublin. Photo: Sportsfile
Willie Dunphy celebrates a score for Laois during the win over Dublin. Photo: Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

"'You would have got on any team in the country,' they would say. 'If you played for Kilkenny, you would have won a couple of All-Irelands,' they would say. They didn't understand." - Pat Critchley, 'Hungry Hill'

Thirty years ago Niall Rigney played in his second county senior hurling final for Portlaoise at the age of 20. Winning his first winner's medal ought to have been the day's abiding memory were it not tainted by darker events.

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A decade that generated optimism around Laois hurling of a kind not seen in 40 years, since the county reached the '49 All-Ireland final, finished with a county final smeared by violence.

The decade which also provided the county's first hurling All-Star, as a testament to Laois's rise and brief flirtation with the good times, ended with a county final of such horrendous and reckless disregard for basic safety that it broke all the rules of respect and honour.

Players and mentors behaved appallingly, mindlessly, with reckless striking to the head part of the grisly spectacle of lawlessness. Long suspensions followed. Partly it was a result of an over-active rivalry. Almost every year the same two clubs, Portlaoise and Camross, contested the final.

In his book on a life of hurling, a beautiful and engaging memoir published in 2008, that sole Laois hurling Allstar, Pat Critchley, detailed the belts, bruises and breaks he suffered in his playing career.

And of course the huge catalogue of disappointments. But the narrative is shot through with humour, is notably devoid of self-pity, and earnestly deliberates on the code of honour without which hurling would be an ungovernable chaos. As recently as last year's county final that control was momentarily lost.

Niall Rigney, who played with Critchley in '89, is here now, all these years later, saying that the culture has changed - despite the scenes which soured last year's county final and persuaded Ross King to resist county hurling until eventually the desire to play again and the cajoling of Eddie Brennan lured him back.

Manager Eddie Brennan shows his delight at the final whistle
Manager Eddie Brennan shows his delight at the final whistle

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"That was the darkest day ever, terrible, terrible day," says Rigney of '89. "That's long gone out of this county. There was an incident in the county final last year but don't tell me these incidents don't happen in Tipp and Kilkenny.

"I was there in those counties (coaching) and I was in Limerick (with Doon), a couple of years ago, and there was a county final between Na Piarsaigh and Kilmallock - Na Piarsaigh beat us by three points in the county semi-final - (where) there was a serious row in the county final, it got out of hand and spilled over on to the sidelines. And Limerick are All-Ireland champions at the moment."

On Sunday last in O'Moore Park, Rigney watched as an ordinary spectator along with his wife as Laois pulled off a shock victory over Dublin. He hurled 14 years with Laois from the late '80s and never had anything like it to savour.

He has never seen days like it since he retired either. "For me personally, it was back to the '80s when we had a brilliant team under Georgie Leahy and got to the Leinster final in '85. And when we reached the Centenary final in '84. And I think the players are doing something similar for the young lads of today."

His son Cormac is approaching the age Rigney was when he won that first county medal in '89. He's never witnessed a day like Sunday last. Laois moved out of the Leinster Championship last year, further onto the periphery.

Only the die-hards were present in Navan the day they defeated Meath to ensure they at least stayed in that tier and didn't drift any farther into obscurity. With Meath playing Tyrone in the football qualifiers afterwards, the arrest of a man carrying a Palestinian flag attracted more notice than the Laois hurlers.

Did you think Laois beating Dublin might happen, Niall Rigney is asked? "Genuinely, no. I felt the week (after winning the McDonagh Cup) was too short. Eddie let them off the leash and let them go and enjoy themselves Sunday night, and Monday, and deservedly so. So you were looking at a five-day turnaround.

"But what's really evident is the lads are playing with a smile on their face. They are loving it. There is a pep in their step. The players are just loving their hurling at the moment and the supporters are loving watching them," added Niall.

Matthew Whelan is one of only two players over 30, along with Joe Phelan of Camross, having joined the senior panel in the winter of 2006. "There's only two or three that's 27 or 28 and then I think most of them are under 25 so it's a very young team," he says.

"And it's great for them too because they are getting experience of winning a big game that I didn't get which hopefully will stand to them in the future if they can build on it.

"And anyone that's minor age now or under 16 are looking at what is possible if you put the hard yards in and want to be ambitious and advance as a senior inter-county player.

"A lot of people talk about the '80s and getting to a Leinster final. I don't remember that myself, I wasn't born that time. So I suppose it creates a new wave of players that the county can get behind and follow," he says.

Even the qualifiers, aimed at helping counties like Laois when introduced in 2002, couldn't bring any measure of relief or compensation. The 2015 Leinster Championship win over Offaly was their first since 1972 but Offaly by then were in freefall. Convincing players there was a point committing to inter-county hurling was a challenge for any manager prepared to take on the job.

When crushed by Offaly in the Leinster Championship in 2008, players vanished en masse before the qualifiers. Rigney was a selector working alongside the manager Damien Fox. When Fox resigned, Rigney managed the rest of the campaign and stayed on in the position for a couple of more seasons.

"I think at Damien's last training session, four players turned up. It was demoralising, terrible. I was a selector with that team. We just sat in the dressing room and said, 'What's the point?' We called the county board chairman.

"We were after being beaten by Offaly inside in O'Moore Park by 15 or 20 points or whatever it was and we were going to be meeting Galway in the qualifiers. And (Ger) Loughnane was over Galway and they were strong. That was the lowest point I've ever seen, it was never that bad when I was playing.

"When I was involved (managing) it was all about survival. There was always that threat that if we dropped to the Christy Ring - look at Offaly - we were doomed. We were gone, we were not coming back here. Players won't commit. And I know in those two years as much as we were all trying to make progress it was all about survival. Not dropping down there."

In 2009, they beat Antrim in the qualifiers and were within three points of Limerick. "I finished after the following year. Brendan Fennelly came in and that was the Cork trouncing. We fell off the cliff. Teddy McCarthy came in (afterwards) and lads weren't committing to it."

Matthew Whelan, a former Laois captain, is one of those players who deserves every good thing that comes his way. Through all the difficulties, save for a spell injured when he missed the championship of '08, he has been there for Laois in spite of everything.

Eddie Brennan is his seventh county manager. In 2011, he was on the field when they were destroyed by Cork in a qualifier match, 10-20 to 1-13. "To ship 10-20 was mortifying," he admits. "That was the moment I suppose you are saying, where are we going from here?"

On the club front, Laois now has a much broader range of contenders in the eight-team senior club championship. There is still scope for improvement. Portlaoise, only recently returned to senior hurling, have only one member on the county panel.

Last year, Rigney became immersed in the process which led to Brennan's appointment. He was asked along with former county players Declan Conroy and Eamon Jackman to help find a new manager.

"Peter O'Neill, the chairman of the county board, contacted me and asked would I be part of this three-man committee basically. But you must remember that before Cheddar (Plunkett) took it on Cheddar had interviewed up to 19 guys for the job. And the reason Cheddar ended up as manager was because he couldn't get anyone to do it. He had to do it himself, himself and Paul (Cuddy), the two of them took it on."

In 1997, Pádraig Horan, the former Offaly hurling captain, was appointed Laois manager after Babs Keating. A county board officer at the time explained how one of Horan's key selling points was that he "understood the Laois man". But when Horan resigned in June 2000 it was claimed that players refusing to be involved had contributed to the decision. The Laois man was not always an easy man to understand.

Rigney, Jackman and Conroy were appointed in June of last year and eventually narrowed their pursuit down to five candidates who they interviewed. They included Joe Quaid, Ger Manley, the former Cork player, who worked in Laois, Arien Delaney, who had managed Camross to win a few senior championships, John McEvoy, former manager of Dublin under-21s and a native of Clough-Ballacolla, and Eddie Brennan.

"They were all interested," says Rigney. "I had known Eddie when he was based here as a guard in Portlaoise. I got word through a friend of mine who was friendly with Eddie that this guy could be interested in this.

"And then when I was managing James Stephens in Kilkenny Eddie would have been hurling with Graigue-Ballycallan. I would have met him on a few occasions. And when I was manager of Laois Eddie was based here and we would have met up and down.

"And I contacted Eddie. We met and there was a genuine interest there. But we had to be fair to all five and they were all excellent candidates. But I suppose what it came down to was the profile of Eddie, he was a recent All-Ireland winner. But the one thing that really stood out for us with Eddie was his complete honesty. I suppose if you go back and look at the number of years it took Eddie to break into the Kilkenny team."

He spoke of that?

"Ah yeah, he did, I would have known that anyway but he did speak about that with honesty and how hard and frustrating it was for him at times to get in, and to get into the Kilkenny set-up."

Rigney had a handle on Brennan's motives and what drove him. He was happy the interest was genuine. "So many counties think, 'Oh, we will go after a guy because he's an All-Ireland winner it'll bring high profile'.

We've had that before, lads like that in the past. The one thing I knew about Eddie, the one thing that really stood out and that the players are talking about, is his level-headedness. But that's a serious attribute that all those Kilkenny players would have had.

Like, when I worked with Jackie Tyrrell and Eoin Larkin in James Stephens and Brian himself, Brian Cody, and Donnacha, his lad, it was just their level-headedness; they are ordinary, lovely fellas, no airs or graces.

Whatever they've won they're just sound fellas. And that's what Eddie brought. He brought that level of honesty and hard work, that's basically all it was.

"I will be honest, I was very blunt with Eddie. I was very open about it. For the last couple of years, Eamon Kelly was the manager, and not being disrespectful to anybody here, but when you are looking out at a team as a supporter, a former player, manager, selector, whatever, it's very frustrating to see the players lacking the basics in relation to fitness and touch.

"I had to say to him, look, there is a level we needed to get to, to have the basics. I knew it would take a lot of work. I knew there was still a good number of players there who were very dedicated.

"All it needed was someone to steer the ship in the proper direction and proper manner. And Eddie knew that. You just needed to get everybody to buy into that.

"It's the same panel basically for the last couple of years. It was a case of getting the proper structures in place. In fairness, it wasn't all a bed of roses, a case of Eddie walking in with a magic wand. It didn't happen like that. I remember he called me to say at one training session he had only 13 players. It wasn't all rosy in the garden.

"But if you are a young guy of 19 or 20 years of age and you know there is an eight-time All-Ireland medal winner (coming). Still a young man. These players are seeing that. And who wouldn't want to hurl for Eddie Brennan?"

Around Halloween Brennan met up with the players. "And it was a frustrating time for him, I remember, because there were lads in their mid-20s and they were talking of taking breaks and coming back in January," says Rigney. "In their mid-20s and this was totally alien to Eddie and to where he was coming from.

"I think the figure was 22 players refused the invitation. But that is blown out of proportion. You have over 30 players there now. Are there over 50 of that quality in Laois at the moment? There's not."

He admits there are a few serious potential additions who could be there. "Leigh Bergin, he is doing a master's. Last year in that, that is a very genuine reason. Maybe two to three outside of that. Joe Campion, who would have been there with Cheddar. Ciarán Collier, hurler of the year in Laois in 2018, from Camross. He hurled last year."

On Sunday last, Rigney had the Tipperary management positioned directly behind him. Did they honestly think that Laois would be facing them today? Who did?

"The brilliant thing was that when Dublin drew level, you could sense around me, ah we have done enough," says Rigney. "But we got the next two points, worked the ball out of defence brilliantly, 30-yard passes, two points in a row to go back ahead. I felt we had it. They worked it out calmly. That was great to see.

"Their touch was excellent and their composure was brilliant. I didn't think they'd have the energy level. I said at half-time if we got another 20 minutes of this it would be the max. When I saw Dublin minus eight, that's the way the bookies had it, I felt that was a realistic call."

Now, they face Tipperary who come with All-Ireland medal-winning experience and smarting from a Munster final flogging. "I would safely say the three happiest men outside of Laois leaving O'Moore Park last Sunday would have been Liam Sheedy, Eamon O'Shea and Tommy Dunne," states Rigney.

"They would have been delighted to get Laois. Let's call it as it is. There is going to be a bounce-back in Tipp.

"We need to do three things. We need to make sure we get our match-ups right. We need to get our structure right. And the most important thing we need to get right is to stay in the game as long as possible. Tipp will come looking for the green flags early."

But what the hell. These days don't come round often.

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