An idyllic summer afternoon in Croke Park, the type of day footballers dream about — getting an opportunity to showcase their skills and the fruits of all the work that goes into being an inter-county footballer.
The beauty with sports is all dreams look different and so while many would assume an open, attacking game of football is what is desired, someone else can see things from another perspective. Beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.
This was the third time Carlow and Laois have faced off since mid-March. Following those two league encounters — including the Division 4 final which Laois won 0-15 to 0-11 — both sides would have had an opportunity to tweak their game plan and look to add new wrinkles from what they would have learned from the spring campaign.
While the opportunity for subtle differences is possible, the reality is both sets of players would have known exactly what to expect from their opposite number.
This was the first time I have seen Carlow in person this season and from the minute the ball was thrown in, it was obvious why there has been so much focus and discussion on their style of play and defensive set-up.
After watching it for 10 minutes, it was clear to see they were well coached in it and it was going to be hard for Laois to breach the number of bodies they had back.
The recent experiences of playing against this system stood to Laois as they showed the patience in possession required against a mass defence.
They also avoided carrying the ball into contact to get swallowed up and turned over. You could see it went against the natural instinct of a couple of the Laois forwards — Niall Donoher and Ross Munnelly in particular — who would often look for a kick-pass inside.
While they kicked a couple of balls away, it wasn’t with the regularity to which other teams playing against such a set-up would succumb.
While Carlow are clearly well drilled in their defensive structure, one thing that surprised me was how ill-disciplined they were.
By my reckoning they conceded nine scoreable frees to Laois and while Laois only converted four of these, it was a very high number for a team that have so many players back.
Multiple frees were for sloppy tackling or a push in the back when there were other Carlow defenders also in range to make a defensive play.
One of the reasons for the low-return percentage from Laois dead balls was that some of these frees were between 40 and 50 yards out. Possibly on the edge of Donie Kingston’s range but certainly scoreable.
Carlow also had a mixed return from placed balls, Paul Broderick and Daniel St Ledger 0 from 4 with frees from the same range.
I thought there was an opportunity missed by both teams here to look for a quick give-and-go free to get the ball back to the kicker 10 or 15 yards closer to goal. Both defences switched off the minute the free-taker was in possession so it was certainly on if they had showed some quick thinking.
Excellently taken points from Colm Begley — who had a fine game at centre back — and Kingston helped Laois into a 0-6 to 0-3 lead at the break and the big question screaming out was, even if Carlow were limiting the Laois scores, were they going to be able to register enough to put themselves in a position to win the game?
They certainly had the best of things in the third quarter. Laois had three poor wides to start the second half and Carlow began to move the ball at pace through the hands and when they did commit numbers to the attack were causing Laois problems.
Carlow wing backs Jordan Morrissey and Ciaran Moran were central to this and their driving runs helped Carlow reduce the lead to the minimum.
Sean Murphy was another driving Carlow on from midfield but I was impressed with the way Laois defended against him.
Murphy is one of the most powerful ball carriers around and he looks for contact as much as open space, but Laois were smart and ran with him, looking to tackle when Murphy had a solo or hop of the ball rather than giving him the hit he desired and would use to brush off and usually beat his man.
However, as things tightened up, Carlow started to run out of legs as both teams began to introduce reinforcements to help carry them over the line.
When Niall Donoher kicked an excellent score with the outside of his left boot after 58 minutes, it pushed the lead back out to two points and helped Laois recapture the initiative. With subs Brian Glynn and Evan O’Carroll stretching the lead to four points, it was an impressive closing out of the game.
Carlow’s last real threat was with five minutes to play when a brilliantly worked move ended with a glimmer of a goal chance snuffed out by the Laois full-back line. That move highlighted what would be possible if they committed to attacking like that on a more regular basis rather than when in last-ditch mode.
So just like the league final, Laois dug out a four-point win while Carlow get another reminder that this system will keep them competitive but they will need to adapt it to continue their season for much longer.
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