Laois can hold their own as Tribesmen experiment
Galway have to use Portlaoise test to find right formula, writes Jamesie O'Connor
A teaching colleague of mine is married to a Laois woman, and I've heard regular anecdotes over the years about his father-in-law's near fanatical support for the county's hurlers.
One of the best of those stories occurred on a Saturday evening last May. One of his grandchildren had received her first holy communion in Dublin, and the extended family had returned to the house afterwards. The festivities were well under way when he mumbled something about slipping out for a few minutes, sometime before six o'clock.
It was a bit much to expect his absence not to be noticed when nearly four hours had elapsed, and he still hadn't returned. By the time he gingerly tried to sneak in the back door just after half nine, his cover had been blown. Someone had twigged that the Laois hurlers happened to be playing Carlow in the Leinster championship in Dr Cullen Park that evening which, to anyone who knew him, explained his whereabouts.
In the early years of my own playing days, Laois were certainly no pushover. I can remember more than once coming out of Rathdowney after a match relieved to have gotten a result. Obviously things have changed.
I was impressed with them in 2009 when they gave Limerick the fright of their lives in a Thurles double-header. After putting Limerick through the wringer, the team was applauded off the field that evening by all four sets of supporters and rightly so given the intelligent and committed brand of hurling they played.
The last couple of years though have been disastrous. I was at the Leinster quarter-final in Tullamore last year when they were a mile off the pace and Dublin wiped the floor with them. Having been relegated to hurling's third tier in the league, the manager's job wasn't exactly attractive, so Seamus Plunkett deserves a lot of credit for the way he's turned things in the right direction.
Given he was one of Laois's best footballers last year, Cahir Healy's decision to focus on hurling this year was a statement that the organisation and set-up was going to be right. The team's strength and conditioning, nutrition and fitness levels have all been addressed and with Ger Cunningham on board as coach, an awful lot of the right boxes are being ticked.
With promotion back to Division 1B secured, and two good championship wins under their belts, definite progress is being made. Obviously, coming from the league's third tier makes expecting them to live with Galway for 70 minutes this afternoon completely unrealistic. But if the players can be as good as they can be and give it everything, as Limerick did last weekend, the genuine hurling people in the county, and I'm thinking of one elderly gentleman in particular, as well as the players, can leave Portlaoise this afternoon with their heads held high.
The progress Laois have made hasn't gone unnoticed in Galway, whose players were making all the right noises last week. Each and every one of them trotted out the same mantra that they weren't looking beyond the Laois game, but obviously, barring a disaster, they'll have three weeks to get ready for the summer's first acid test and a shot at what in all likelihood will be Kilkenny in the Leinster final.
If league form was a barometer of where Galway were at a year ago, when they ended up in a relegation play-off with Dublin, then we shouldn't pay too much attention to the pretty disjointed and feeble effort shown against the Cats in Thurles in the league semi-final in early May. The question Galway supporters must be asking themselves, though, is whether or not the team is any closer to beating Kilkenny.
To be fair, it's hard to beat Kilkenny once in the championship, not to mind twice, and after having the better of it for one-and-a-half of the three championship encounters they had in 2012, Anthony Cunningham would be forgiven for thinking that if he's to beat Kilkenny once this year, far better it to be in autumn than the first week in July.
It's often the case that a management change has its biggest impact in the first year when everything is new and fresh and players have to be on their toes. The challenge for Cunningham and his backroom team is that having raised the bar, and expectation levels, both within his squad and the county in general, can they find the required level of improvement needed to go one step further?
With huge uncertainty within the county over the make-up of the team, and particularly the defensive spine and who will man the two key central defensive positions, it's hard to be optimistic that those inches or percentages have been found. While Kilkenny appear to have upgraded in one or two positions, and come back with a stronger-looking squad, Galway look to be still in experimental mode come high summer.
Last year's centre-back, Tony óg Regan, seems to have fallen completely out of favour and even though Johnny Coen is named at No 6, David Collins, if fit, is far more likely to play there this afternoon. Having experimented with Joseph Cooney in the position for most of the league, he's also an option, but I didn't think he was the answer in the games I saw him, and the position appears to be still up for grabs.
Meanwhile, Kevin Hynes is named to start at full-back, although there has been much speculation from training that Shane Kavanagh will usurp him. Having been brought back, I was amazed Kavanagh got no game time during the league, but in fairness – injury, marriage etc – there were mitigating factors. While Hynes did a really good job for them last year, he did struggle with Richie Hogan in the All-Ireland final replay, and also in that league semi-final when Kilkenny again tested the waters. That has to be a worry looking down the line, and another potentially big call Cunningham may have to make.
Elsewhere, after impressive league and club campaigns respectively, Davy Glennon and Conor Cooney start either side of Joe Canning. The team's over-reliance on Canning for scores undid them last September when Kilkenny finally seemed to figure them out, but there is talent and flair in the forward line. It's easy to forget too, that four of the attack, Glennon and Cooney, along with Niall and David Burke, are still under 23 and their best years are ahead of them.
The experience of last year will bring them on, but a couple of them do need to step up and deliver on a consistent basis, and they need to ensure Canning spends more time closer to goal in the big matches if Galway are to go all the way this season.
Finally, hats off to Limerick for the tremendous performance and real shot in the arm they gave to the hurling championship last week. To see the throng of Limerick people still on the field half an hour after the final whistle showed what it meant.
Huge credit has to go to the character, desire and spirit shown by the players. Watching them warm up before the game, you could see they were ready. They did a tackle-bag drill just before the throw-in, where even in the searing heat of last weekend, the intensity and ferocity of the hitting left you in no doubt about how physical the game was going to be. When those hits kept going in, especially in the last quarter, it eventually wore Tipp down.
Credit also to John Allen and his backroom team for really learning the lessons from 12 months ago. I know the players were much happier with their fitness levels, and unlike last year, when they were playing catch-up in that department, this year they knew that wasn't going to be an issue. The strength they were able to deploy from the bench and the way they used those resources was also instrumental in that final 20 minutes when all the subs introduced made contributions and they outscored Tipperary by nine points to two.
Having gone four points clear with 20 minutes left, Tipp can have no complaints. When they're going well, some have likened the movement of their forwards and the accuracy and precision of their striking to playing chess. The problem last Sunday was that that game is hard to play when the opposition are hell bent in knocking the pieces off the board.
Tipperary are too talented not to still have a big say in this year's championship, but there are still question marks about the leadership and resolve within the team when the hard questions are asked. Only time will tell whether they have the answers.