Former Kerry hurler John ‘Tweek’ Griffin has likened the county’s crunch Joe McDonagh clash with Laois to an All-Ireland quarter-final.
Having been on the road for their opening two games, the Kingdom will enjoy home comforts for what is a make-or-break fortnight ahead, at the end of which Kerry could just as easily wind up in the Joe McDonagh Cup decider as they could drop to hurling’s third tier.
The first priority of Fintan O’Connor’s side is to preserve their Joe McDonagh status and that can be achieved by taking at least a point off unbeaten Laois at Austin Stack Park this afternoon (3pm throw-in). Victory, meanwhile, would nudge them into contention for a final spot.
For Eddie Brennan’s Laois, who bagged the maximum four points from their first two outings, a third win of the campaign would guarantee them a place in the decider and an All-Ireland preliminary quarter-final fixture against the third-placed team from either Leinster or Munster.
Such has been the incredibly tight nature of the Joe McDonagh Cup, the second year of its existence, that four teams — Laois, Antrim, Kerry, and Westmeath — remain in the hunt for a final berth, while any from Kerry, Westmeath, and Offaly could still be relegated.
Westmeath, such is their healthy score difference and the fact that they have already overcome an embattled Offaly outfit, means they’re the most unlikely of the three to fall through the relegation trapdoor. Although not in action this weekend, Offaly’s faith may well be sealed come 5pm today as any other result bar a Laois win at Tralee would condemn Joachim Kelly’s side to the Christy Ring Cup. So, as you’ll have gathered by now, it is still all very much to play for.
“Saturday, essentially, is an All-Ireland quarter-final for Kerry,” begins Griffin, who won two Christy Ring Cup medals during his 15 years in the green and gold shirt.
“If they win this weekend, then the Offaly game next weekend has a bit of a semi-final feel to it as a win there and they will go extremely close to making the Joe McDonagh Cup final.
“For Laois, this is their All-Ireland semi-final. They were one of the favourites for the Joe McDonagh last year but didn’t have a good year. Kerry beat them comfortably in Tralee and they were almost dragged into a relegation play-off. Under new management, they look more organised, are a more serious threat. In Enda Rowland, Paddy Purcell, Ross King, Matthew Whelan, and Mark Kavanagh, they have some excellent hurlers.”
After a most disappointing opening day defeat away to Antrim, the visitors to Dunloy finished 14 points adrift, Kerry remounted the horse when avenging their Division 2 league final reverse to Westmeath last time out.
“Kerry’s preparation wasn’t great coming into the Antrim game because lads were involved with their clubs playing football championship.
They needed the win over Westmeath. Lads needed it for confidence. One win like that can turn your season.. They’ll hope for another big performance on Saturday.
Today’s game will be broadcast live on the GAA’s new streaming service GAA Now. It’s the first time the Kingdom hurlers will feature on the service. Offaly’s continuing decline and Eddie Brennan’s success in turning around the fortunes of Laois has seen more of a spotlight thrown over the Joe McDonagh Cup than was the case last year, but Griffin, who captained the county to Division 2A and Christy Ring glory in 2015, believes there is still a fair bit of road to be travelled.
“It is a pity it hasn’t got the exposure it deserves since it started. Because of the quality of the games this year, along with one or two other factors, people are beginning to sit up and take notice of the quality of hurler in the Joe McDonagh Cup.
“For the effort these lads put in, they get very little exposure. It is great to watch the highlights from the big Munster and Leinster SHC games on the Sunday Game, but it is also very important the Joe McDonagh games are shown and analysed some little bit. All that counts.
“From the GAA point of view, their promotion of this competition hasn’t been good enough. There has been very little about it in terms of what is on RTÉ.”