Three weeks ago today, Laois got their 2016 championship underway. At home in O’Moore Park against Wicklow, they stuttered to a 3-16 to 0-18 win, and afterwards midfielder John O’Loughlin was interviewed on the pitch by Newstalk’s Colm Parkinson.
Laois had conceded 18 points to Wicklow following one of the worst defensive records across all four leagues and relegation to Division 3. Asked what was wrong, O’Loughlin - whose individual display was one of the main reasons his side didn’t suffer an opening day defeat - was as honest off the field as he is on it: “I don’t know.” This wasn’t a standard prepared answer, dodging the question, this was a player giving a rare realistic assessment as to where his team stood.
While he didn’t know the answer, he quickly acknowledged their performance wouldn’t be near good enough against Dublin, which only highlights how daunting a task face this Laois team this evening in Nowlan Park.
When reviewing games, most teams will look at areas that went well and areas that can be improved. I was in O’Moore Park that night and after seeing the game against Wicklow, the list of what went well for Laois will be pretty short, while there’s a lot on the opposite list.
In sport you often hear managers and players talk about the process, and how they stick to the process in build up to games, and then the process of a game plan during games.
It appears Laois have no defined process, so with only three weeks between such a disjointed effort and tonight’s game what can they realistically improve to the required level?
For me they need to strip things back to core fundamentals and reach a high level in those areas - areas they have full control over. There’s no point focusing large amounts of preparation time on what Dublin will do until they have minimum levels reached with areas of their own game.
Areas such as tackling and their own physicality with Dublin players. They may sound basic elements, what every team should bring to a championship game, but far too many times Wicklow moved the ball from one end of the field to the other, untouched. They also scored 0-18 as well as spurning many other chances. It’s scary to think what this Dublin forward line could do to the Laois rearguard if their defensive application is at a similar level.
Tackling and being physical don’t require elaborate systems and can often be down to the team’s and individual players’ mindset. But it also requires buy-in from all players. In in teams that are struggling for confidence you’ll sometimes see a player - often a forward - take the easy option and not track a runner, or worse, track him late and then give away a bad free after a lazy tackle.
This can spread like wildfire through a team: if players feel their teammates are not doing the hard work, then why should they? Laois will know the likes of Philly McMahon, Jonny Cooper and James McCarthy will look to run from deep, so players must be prepared to take responsibility for tracking them when they go.
However if you get these fundamentals right in the opening stages of a game, stay disciplined in the tackle while maintaining the physicality and begin to force turnovers or mistakes from opposition players, then that can give a team oxygen and belief to push on in other areas of their performance.
Even if all this goes to plan for Laois they will require Dublin to have a total-off day for this game to be still in the melting pot going into the closing stages. However, off-days for this Dublin team are becoming extremely rare.
There will be coverage of the fact Dublin are outside Croke Park for a championship game for the first time since 2006 and that could play into helping the underdogs, but while with some Dublin teams of the past, some of which I was a part of in the 2000s, there was little consistency of performance in league or championship when outside Dublin, this team have gone through the last four National League campaigns showing zero regard for the venue or crowd.
Laois may be searching for a process to suit their management and team, whereas Jim Gavin and these Dublin players are the benchmark for preparation and attention to detail, all of which reduce the odds of an off day occurring.
You’ll never hear anyone in the Dublin camp talking about potential games or challenges that may come down the line. All their focus in recent weeks will have been purely on Laois.
I often have people asking me if that can possibly be true, that surely the players are thinking of big games later in the summer, of All-Irelands. The fact is it is true, boring as it may seem to everyone outside their group; it is back to the process they believe in, and they know what benefits come from staying in the moment.
They’ll enjoy the moment starting in Kilkenny tonight. it might be different dressing room and different pitch but don’t expect much else to change.
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