Laois 3-16 Wicklow 0-18: It’s over six months since the Leinster Council decided that Dublin should begin the defence of their provincial crown in Kilkenny, but Laois manager Mick Lillis was still spitting blood about it on Saturday night after his side booked their place on the same bill.
The Dubs will be playing a championship match beyond the walls of Croke Park for the first time in 10 years on June 4 and Lillis, not for the first time since last November, was up front in describing the failure to fix the game for O’Moore Park as a “travesty”.
The Clare native and long-time Portlaoise resident touched on the fanfare that comes with the arrival of the capital side in any town and added the placement of the tie in the “home of hurling” was disrespectful to not just Laois but all counties.
“We will play wherever we are asked to play, but I think the game being played in Nowlan Park is a disgrace,” he explained in a matter-of-fact tone. “I genuinely think it was a shocking bad decision and one the people who voted for it will have to live with.
“But it’s all down to money and it is a terrible indictment of the GAA it is down to money. It is not down to bums on seats, which was the reason (given): that there are more seats in Nowlan Park. Sure the Dubs don’t sit down in Croke Park, why would they want to sit down in Nowlan Park?”
Few of those seated among the 4,575 attendance in Portlaoise on Saturday were prompted to their feet by Laois’ worryingly laboured performance against a side that finished mid-table in Division Four of the Allianz Leagues last month.
It wasn’t a performance without some plusses.
Gary Walsh took one of the five goal chances that fell their way in the first-half while Ruairi O’Connor and Donie Kingston bagged a further two after the interval when another handful went abegging, but it took them forever to put Wicklow away.
Kingston’s 1-4 inside the last six minutes of action finally allowed them to pull clear, but the defensive frailties that made for the worst points against record in the league this spring resurfaced yet again and Lillis was up front about their shortcomings.
“You would be terrified. If we defend like that Dublin will be gone out the gate in 10 or 15 minutes and they won’t even look behind them. Dublin would destroy us on that performance and probably would destroy anybody. That’s just the way it is. We would hope we won’t be as poor but it will be hard to stop them. Stopping Dublin is a mammoth task and I don’t know if there is anybody capable of doing it.”
Referee Fergal Kelly blew for in and around 50 frees on the night, far too any of them against Laois defenders in plain view of their own goal. It was their good fortune that Wicklow missed four easyish frees in that first-half and that the visitors were similarly lackadaisical at the other end.
Goalkeeper Robert Lambert gifted O’Connor his goal 12 minutes into the second period and at a time when Wicklow were on a roll. It was one of numerous misguided short kick-out attempts and, though Laois took full advantage, there will be no such scraps on offer in Nowlan Park.
Lillis knows the ground fairly well from visits down the years. He sat centrefield a year ago to watch Bruce Springsteen perform there so he should know the best vantage points on which to position the “snipers in the stand” he joked will be needed to counter Dublin.
The experienced Colm Begley may make it back from injury in time, and one or two more besides, but the sense of inevitability and dread that will grow as the quarter-final looms ever larger is impossible to ignore. It could be very, very ugly.
“It’s not David and Goliath, it’s probably David and Goliath’s bigger brother. The nearest anybody has come to Dublin in three or four years is 12 or 14 points. There is a monster there. It is well documented the different reasons why it is there.
“If you were looking in there you would be saying ‘look, there’s not much point in Laois going to Nowlan Park’, but life’s not like that,” Lillis added in a rare moment of positivity. “You go and you out your best foot forward and that’s it.”
Meath actually ran Dublin to seven points in the 2013 Leinster final and Laois got to within 11 points of Dublin in a Leinster quarter-final just two years ago. Either margin would be tantamount to a victory this time.
Scorers for Laois:
D Kingston (1-6, 2 frees); G Walsh (1-1); E O’Carroll (0-4, 3 frees); R O’Connor (1-0); R Munnelly (0-2, 1 free); G Dillon, J O’Loughlin, P Cahillane (all 0-1).
Scorers for Wicklow:
R Finn (0-6, 4 frees):D Healy (0-2); P Cunningham (0-2 frees): J McGrath (0-2, 1 free); P McLoughlin, A Murphy, D Hayden, P Byrne, J Crowe and A McLoughlin (all 0-1).
G Brody; P Cotter, M Timmons, S Attride; D O’Connor, D Strong, G Dillon; J O’Loughlin, B Quigley; N Donoher, P Cahillane, E O’Carroll; R Munnelly, G Walsh, D Kingston.
M Campion for Donoher and R O’Connor for Munnelly (both HT); K Meaney for Campion (48); A Farrell for Dillon (56); E Keane for Walsh (63); J Farrell for O’Carroll (68).
R Lambert; C Hyland, P McLoughlin, A Murphy; C Murphy, S Kelly, D Healy; R Finn, N Gaffney; D Hayden, J McGrath, M Kenny; P Byrne, P Cunningham, M Lennon.
A McLoughlin for Gaffney (HT); D Woods for Kenny (42); P O’Connor for McGrath (44); J Crowe for Murphy (51); S Thompson for Byrne (58); G Allen for Lennon (68).
F Kelly (Longford).
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