Underdogs tag suiting Rigney's Laois just fine
AFTER being discommoded by the favourites' tag hanging around their neck for their championship opener against Carlow, the Laois hurlers find themselves back in familiar territory as long-shot underdogs going into Sunday's Leinster quarter-final clash with Dublin.
Laois laboured to a six-point success over the Christy Ring Cup champions and manager Niall Rigney agrees that his side didn't quite know how to cope with the expectation.
"It had been a long time since we went into a Leinster Championship match as such clear favourites," said Rigney.
"I don't think our lads are ready for that yet. But we got the result and that was the important thing. We're a young side, with an average age of 23, so we have time to learn how to deal with that.
"Carlow also have to be given a lot of credit for the way they played. They didn't make it easy for us and it was no fluke that they beat Wexford in the league. They proved that when running Clare so close, so they are no bad side. That was their Leinster final, so we just had to get through it."
Last summer, Laois were at the centre of the relegation debacle after their success over Antrim sparked a review of championship structures. They went on to test Limerick before bowing out of the All-Ireland series, but Laois hurling has set its sights on long-term gains.
The dual player has been reintroduced in the county with Cahir Healy successfully managing to play both codes. The county's only hurling All Star, Pat Critchley, has extensive underage training programmes in place, while the much-maligned club scene is also on the rise.
"Club hurling in Laois got a lot of bad press recently and rightly so," said Rigney. "But there have been five different winners of the past six senior championships and everyone is rowing together behind the county team. It's getting better and it has been tidied up like it needed to be. Dublin have set the example and that's the way we want to go; we want to get to their level."
Eoin Costello will miss the clash with the Dubs after picking up a straight red card against Carlow, while Brian Stapleton will only return to training next week after a knee injury.
A talisman for much of the past decade, James Young has retired. He hit 1-9 when Laois beat Dublin in 2005, but Rigney believes Laois have a stronger panel now.
"The structures are in place now. We have a bit more strength-in-depth in our squad and in previous years that wasn't always the case. It takes a few years to build up the core fitness and strength and we are a bit behind Dublin at the minute in that regard and Kilkenny are ahead of everyone else," he said.
"Dublin have improved so much. Anthony (Daly) has done a great job with them. I don't buy into this thing that they had a bad league. They beat Tipperary well and weren't that far away in the rest of the matches.
"They tried a few things and learnt a few things and will be better for it. They are at the level we want to be at, so for us Sunday is about giving a good account of ourselves and taking as much from it as we can."