Like old times as Laois awaken to put pride back in the jersey

It was like old times in the Portlaoise yesterday, going back to the ’80s when Laois were challenging Offaly, and challenging everyone else too. In those days the only prisoners taken were down the road, in Portlaoise jail.

Yesterday Laois were back to that sort of attitude again and it was great to see.

Funny enough, on my out of the ground, I met one of the great players of that era , Pat Critchley, in the company of another great Laois player, Niall Rigney. Both wore huge smiles and you could understand why. Yes they lost yesterday but pride is back in Laois hurling.

The players didn’t take any comfort in the loss though and you could see that in their faces. They came to win, which is the right attitude to have, but they did their best, gave Galway the fright of their lives, and so they will retain pride in the performance this morning.

Much credit to the players themselves then but great credit too to manager Seamus ‘Cheddar’ Plunkett and his backroom team. They set themselves up from the throw-in to make life difficult for Galway and their attack especially. They managed that.

Credit to the management also for the Laois conditioning. I remarked in the warm-up about how fit and strong Laois looked and that was shown in their display as they stayed with Galway right to the end.

One criticism though, I think they took Willie Hyland too far from goal when they were playing with the strong wind in the first half. Time after time Eoin Reilly’s huge puckouts were sent down on top of Willie but he was usually deep in the left corner. I think they’d have been better off having Willie on the edge of the square for those puckouts and going straight down the middle, route one. Given how good he is in the air, that would really have caused problems for Galway.

Willie was winning a lot of those balls out on the wing but it was far too easy for Galway to defend him from there, especially when they had extra numbers. Put him at full-forward though, have someone playing off the breaks, and that might have paid dividends for Laois.

That apart, Laois got a lot of things right tactically. They played direct hurling when it needed to be played but also took their time on the ball when they had it and picked out the right ball. This was as good a display of hurling as we’ve seen this year, hurling of a really high quality.

Look at their goalie, Eoin Reilly, he was fast off his line and very positive on the ball. Joe Fitzpatrick, Cahir Healy, Stephen Maher, Zane Keenan, Willie Hyland, all quality players. Above all though, and definitely my man of the match, was Matthew Whelan.

This was as fine an exhibition of centre-back play as I’ve seen for a while, superb stuff, and as a bonus, his long-range free-taking was reminiscent of another great centre-back, Seanie McMahon. And what leadership he provided.

When you look to Galway, not for the first time, and I’m sure not for the last, they can be so grateful to Joe Canning. They needed him yesterday and he delivered, showed that match-winning quality.

When Laois went four points up at the start of the game, Joe replied with four points for Galway. When Laois got that goal to go ahead halfway through the second half, it was Joe with the shot from which Galway’s goal came immediately afterwards.

Other heroes for Galway, Iarla Tannian and Johnny Coen and, someone we must mention, Damien Hayes who made a big contribution when he came on.

A failing they have and they’re still trying to make is that perfect ball forward. They should learn from the two goals they got. Long balls, won by the forwards inside fighting for possession and position, the way it always was.

Overall, a very enjoyable game of high quality and great credit to Laois for that. Hopefully now they can maintain that progress.

Briefly then to Saturday night. It went along the lines expected, a very poor game again. A Wexford player red-carded within ten minutes, several players yellow-carded — was their attitude right? And if not, whose fault is that?

The only consolation for them is they now have Antrim in Wexford Park, and should be able to handle that.

For Dublin, and on the evidence from the game, they have some work to do before they’re ready to meet Kilkenny! Hopefully though they take a leaf from the Laois book and start to believe in themselves again.

If they do, then who knows, we might see another belter.

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