Experience against the big boys has stood to Laois

Experience against the big boys has stood to Laois
Laois midfielder Patrick Purcell in action against his Kerry counterpart Jack Goulding during the Leinster SHC Qualifier Round 3 game in Tralee. Laois have mixed with the big boys far more often than the Kingdom players. Picture: Ray McManus

Imagine what must have been going through the minds of folk in the hurling communities of North Kerry or the Glens of Antrim last Sunday as word filtered through that Laois had gone and blown the bloody doors off the championship with that explosive performance against Dublin.

We mention Kerry and Antrim for a very specific reason.

It’s only 16 months since the Ulstermen fell two points shy of Laois in a Division 1B relegation play-off in Dunloy.

They were level approaching the final bell before the visitors landed a pair of points to save themselves from the drop and condemn Antrim to 2A.

Go back another 12 months again and Laois were again flirting with disaster. The margin of error was even smaller this time but they edged Kerry by a point in the 1B trapdoor contest in O’Moore Park. There were 55 scores that day and it had taken a hundred minutes to separate them.

Flipping a coin would have been as fair. And easier.

Laois had faced the Kingdom three times in the league across the previous 14 months and lost every time.

The closest they came was four points and Kerry had eight to spare from one visit to Portlaoise. Neither Antrim nor Kerry have played a single game against one of hurling’s top counties since those league campaigns.

As for Laois, their experience has been very different.

There must be an infinite number of factors that played a part in their win for the ages five days ago.

The arrivals of Eddie Brennan and Niall Corcoran to the county are the most recent and obvious, but what can’t be overlooked is the frequency with which their players have faced the game’s market leaders in recent years.

Twelve of the players who helped down the Dubs last week had a hand in that crucial defeat of Antrim two spring times ago.

Fifteen of them played a part in the close shave with Kerry in 2017, but more notable is the fact that a dozen were on the field when Laois caved to a 32-point defeat to Limerick in the Gaelic Games in 2016.

These are boys who have learned the hard way. Time and time again. The only one of the Big Eight they haven’t made acquaintance with in recent times, in spring or summer, is Kilkenny.

They have run Wexford, Dublin and Galway close and had their backsides reddened by them all.

Look at it this way, Laois have been playing their league hurling in 1B for six consecutive seasons now. They have played tier one counties 19 times through that stretch and another eight fixtures have been banked against the big boys in the championship. That’s 27 games in all.

None of the other ‘weaker’, mid-tier sides have anything like that exposure.

Westmeath haven’t played Division 1 hurling in 33 years (though that will change in 2020), Carlow have only just made it up to 1B, Antrim haven’t played Liam MacCarthy since 2014 and Kerry are all but segregated from the main players under the current championship structures.

Only Laois have managed to test themselves against the best on a regular basis and their recent exploits have, at least, fed into the wave of opinion that the Leinster Championship has to be extended from five to six teams if they and others like them are to have any hope of consistently matching the blue bloods.

Colm Bonnar was banging this drum months ago, long before his Carlow side lost their four Leinster Championship games by an average of over 12 points, but not long after a league campaign when, after years in the third tier, they drew with Galway and ran Dublin to six points.

I don’t think it would pull down a Galway or a Kilkenny if you had two groups of four because they would still have plenty of big games to play.

"There would still be a Leinster final and the next two teams play in whatever knockout and then the other two play for relegation.

“The likes of us or Laois or Offaly might have our work cut out on any given day but the fact that you are up there playing those games means you have to keep the standards up and I think that would be a step in the right direction. You need to see the likes of Kilkenny coming to Cullen Park.”

Games against the Kilkennys of this world are not a magic antidote in and of themselves. Laois absorbed 16- and 17-point defeats to Waterford and Limerick respectively this spring and there are plenty expecting a similar margin when they face Tipperary on Sunday.

Between them, Laois, Carlow, Westmeath, Kerry, and Antrim have faced their supposed superiors 57 times across the last six seasons and 34 of them have ended with double digit defeats. A dozen have been20+ eviscerations and only 13 have been decided by four points or less.

We have been captivated by the likes of Willie Dunphy and Enda Rowland this month but it could easily have been a Shane Conway or a Neil McManus challenging the status quo.

These are players counties that need support, financial and moral, but they need opportunity too.

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