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No hiding place for struggling Wexford and Laoisahead of winner-takes-all tie

THE GAA leadership can tinker all they like with divisional set-ups in the Allianz Hurling League, but on the field there is no hiding place.

It doesn't really matter how they divide up the counties or in what divisions they place them. The simple fact is that results tell the tale, and the story right now is that hurling in Wexford and Laois continues to be at a low ebb.

So what's new? Not a lot. The problems didn't start with the new managers, Liam Dunne of Wexford and Teddy McCarthy (Laois), but if supporters hoped that the appointment of these former All-Ireland winners would somehow hold the key to restoring past glories, they were sadly mistaken.

The figures are stark: five games played in Division 1B and five games lost for Laois; only two wins out of five matches for Wexford -- and one of those was their final outing against Laois, who made seven changes and were clearly saving themselves for a last-ditch effort in tomorrow's relegation play-off at Nowlan Park (2.0).

McCarthy brought a side depleted by injuries down to the Brian Dillons club in Cork for a challenge game on Easter Monday against his native Rebel County, and Laois were trounced by 5-12 to 0-10, so that was hardly a confidence-booster for tomorrow's big game.

And yet for all the doom and gloom, this is a match that matters, so much so that within a month or two, Dunne and McCarthy could be thanking the fixture planners.

There has been criticism of the system by those who say that if Wexford finished four points clear of Laois, then surely it's unfair to ask the Slaneysiders to engage in a match which, if lost, dooms them to relegation.

But the play-off could turn out to be a blessing in disguise.

Yes, there is a cost to defeat, but if the managers want to inspire some championship fervour among their players, then this do-or-die clash is just what the doctor ordered.

McCarthy did not really know what to expect when he took over the management of Laois from Brendan Fennelly, and it's safe to surmise he didn't anticipate losing five matches on the trot. However he has set out his minimum requirements after the first few months in the job.

"What I'm trying to get in Laois is 25 to 30 fellas on a panel who want to put their hands up and play and wear the Laois jersey with a bit of dignity and passion," he says.

Dunne came into the Wexford job with a ringing endorsement from his former All-Ireland winning Wexford team-mate Martin Storey, who said: "He's the right man for the job. Liam has served his time, with two years with the Wexford minors, and bringing three county titles and two Leinster final appearances to Oulart-The Ballagh.

"You can't be just going in for the top job because it's available. You have to bring something to improve it and you have to have served your apprenticeship.

"Liam has done that, and he'll bring passion, toughness and steel to Wexford, something they badly need."

Well, tomorrow is the day for Wexford to bring toughness and steel to a winner-takes-all encounter, and for the Laois team to play with the dignity and passion their manager requires.

Whatever the outcome, the two men in charge really need to see some positive signs for the championship battles ahead.

On paper, Wexford are favourites, but favourites can fall, as Manchester United proved against Wigan Athletic in the Premier League last Wednesday night.

Nobody in the camp is taking Laois for granted -- certainly not rising dual star Matthew O'Hanlon. O'Hanlon resisted the temptation to join up with the county footballers, who play Longford in the Division 3 final at the end of the month.

Irish Independent