For Laois and Offaly, Sunday’s Leinster SHC opener in Tullamore is a must-win game but the reward for the victors is the dubious honour of a semi-final against All-Ireland champions, Kilkenny.
The timing of that tie will be apt, coming almost two years to the day after the reigning All-Ireland champions inflicted a 31-point points defeat on the Faithful County.
Laois’s form this spring has been strikingly similar to their neighbour’s prior to the carnage against the Cats. Back then Offaly suffered the embarrassment of defeat against Carlow in Division Two of the NHL before exacting a measure of revenge in the play-offs. Substitute Wicklow for Carlow and Laois’ story this year is an exact replica.
“It is something you have to consider but we’re not looking as far ahead as Kilkenny,” said Laois selector Ricky Cashin. “We’re thinking about Offaly and you can’t just look past that.
“In saying that, there has been a huge improvement in performance from the Division Two games and the promotion play-off against Limerick. That was a big step up in standard but the lads dealt with it and increased their pace and intensity.
“It’s great to have that game under the belt. I know there was eight points in it on the scoreboard but that didn’t do our performance justice. Richie Bennis said as much.”
Cashin is also manager of the county U21s and eight of his charges will be on duty from the first whistle in Tullamore. Padraig Horan, his opposite number across the border, has delivered a similar supply to John McIntyre.
“They have a very young team. They’ve done the same as ourselves by taking a good few of the older players off and giving the younger players the chance to have a go. Both counties were up front about what they were doing at the start of the year. It was well publicised.”
Three of Laois’ starting XV this weekend were still minors last year, seven of the team will be making their championship debuts while another seven have survived the cull since the same teams met in Leinster this time last year.
The turnover was prompted by former Kilkenny hurler and Leinster Council hurling development officer, Lester Ryan, who drew up an ambitious plan aimed at improving Laois’ hurling fortunes at senior level. Ryan proposed the establishment of a development squad in the county over the next three years, under which the 30-man squad would have an average age of 22.
The result is that 2006 All-Star nominee James Young and Joe Phelan are now the senior citizens on the team despite the fact they are only in their mid-20s but some of the other survivors are experienced beyond their tender years.
“The development idea is only in its first year and we won’t see the fruits of that for three years, at least. We’re not under any illusions about what we’re doing. We have a young panel here and you won’t win a Leinster Championship in your first year.
“There has been a bit of criticism about dropping some of the more familiar names. Those guys gave great service to the county, but it hasn’t happened for Laois in the last few years and it was time to go another way, give other lads a chance. Going for youth, you have the chance to build a team from scratch.”