Hard road to help Rathdowney cause – McGrath
LAOIS are unfortunately regarded as something like the bold child of Leinster hurling right now.
Rife with stories of players opting out, they've gone through two senior managers in the past two years and still haven't got a replacement for next season. Yet Rathdowney-Errill are bravely carrying the hurling flag for the county in tomorrow's Leinster club semi-final.
Their one-goal victory over fancied Westmeath champions Clonkill was the club's first win in Leinster in four attempts and has propelled them to a prestigious last four meeting with Offaly champions Kilcormac-Killoughey.
It's thrown up a hectic weekend for corner-back Alan Delaney (son of Pat, who refereed the 1989 All-Ireland final between Tipp and Antrim) as he is getting married today.
But given the family's devotion to the game he is still expected to line out when the hurling club, formed from an amalgamation in 2005, bid to become the first Laois side since Castletown 11 years ago to make the Leinster club final.
Another man expected to start is county U-21 captain Darren King, who they were without in the quarter-final. "Darren's fine, he had a shoulder injury but he should be grand," says manager Frank McGrath, an uncle of Tipp star Noel.
The Laois seniors may have some problems at present but Rathdowney-Errill's Tipperary manager, from Loughmore-Castleiney, says there's no lack of skill or commitment.
"I've been taking them to a lot of neighbouring counties for club matches over the last few years and Rathdowney are a match for any of them," he says. "Borris-on-Ossory beat us in the minor final last week and they're as good a minor team as any that I've ever been involved with. If you compared them to minor teams in neighbouring counties they'd be as good as any of them.
"But one of the problems Laois has is that their base is small," McGrath accepts. "And hurling probably still plays second fiddle to football in a lot of places."
He regards this Rathdowney-Errill team as "a mature senior team at this stage. We've got a nice blend of youthful enthusiasm and experience".
Their victory over Clonkill marked a watershed for a club who had never before got past the first round. The draw had previously not done them any favours as they were ousted by Rathnure (2006), Ballyhale Shamrocks (2008) and O'Loughlin Gaels (2010) in turn.
McGrath was in charge in 2010 and recalls that an early goal from the Kilkenny champions immediately put them on the back foot, a recurring problem against big-name teams.
That's why their victory over Clonkill meant so much and teenager Ross King, a talented soccer player who is on scholarship in UCD, sealed the deal by scoring 0-8 (6f). Like his brother Darren, he was among the Laois side who raised the county's hurling spirits last summer by reaching the Leinster U-21 final. Youngsters like James Ryan and Patrick Purcell are also coming through Rathdowney's ranks at pace.
But the team is still built around experienced men like Brian Campion (just voted Laois hurler of the year), Shane Dollard, Joe Fitzpatrick and veterans like Liam Tynan and Enda Meagher.