THERE may be action earlier in the day in Ulster, but to the hurlers of Laois and Antrim falls the honour of kicking off the 2011 campaign for Liam MacCarthy.
Neither side has any chance of making it all the way to Croke Park in September, but Laois midfielder James Walsh insists that wouldn’t detract from their efforts — or ambitions.
“We’re not looking beyond this game. This is a big game for us and we can’t take anything for granted. But we have bigger ambitions. We look to teams like Dublin.
“For example we were well in our game against them last year and had a few good spells against them, but we drove a lot of wides and had a man sent-off before they kicked on and beat us (0-25 to 0-16).
“But you see now the inroads Dublin are making, they’re putting a lot of effort into the development of their underage squads, and when we look at what they can do in such short a time you say, ‘why can’t we do the same?’
“Hopefully Laois hurling can replicate what Dublin has done.” Walsh can also point to their results against Limerick in recent years, a five-point loss in this year’s league on Shannonside and a very strong performance in the championship two years ago.
“Yes, and Limerick pushed on to the All-Ireland semi-final that year. Small things are key. Belief is a major factor. Maybe if we’d had more belief in ourselves last year against Dublin, against Limerick the previous year (we’d have won).
“We need to take a big scalp in the next year or two. We haven’t taken down a big team as long as I’m involved. I think we’re due one, we’re going to have to take one of the so-called prominent hurling teams down very shortly.”
The same ambitious attitude will, of course, prevail in Antrim, and with that eye to the future, Dinny Cahill and his selectors have chosen a very young side for this game with several debutants. They travel to Portlaoise, however, where they’ll surely receive a baptism of fire in O’Moore Park, an advantage Walsh is more than grateful to have.
“It’s never easy to play Antrim in Casement, it’s a hard place to go and any team will tell you that, regardless of whether they’re Division One or Division Two.”
They know each other pretty well, these two, met again as recently as March 5th, in the third round of the league, Laois taking that one by four points in a goal-less encounter (0-20 to 0-16), but Antrim had a player sent-off. It was a good recovery by Laois after a loss in the previous round to Carlow, a costly loss as it turned out.
“We were disappointed at some of the points we left behind us in the League but Carlow was the most disappointing result, considering we were at home — that was definitely two points we left behind us and those two points could have seen us into a league final. Antrim? There’s not too many years we don’t come across them at least once and there hasn’t really been a puck of a ball between us. In the last two years we’ve got the rub of the green but the two before that they were on top — hopefully it’ll be with us on Saturday, it’ll be very tight. Antrim probably see themselves more as a championship team too so they’ll come with a very different attitude to O’Moore Park.”
With the Leaving Cert just around the corner these are testing times for secondary-school teacher James, but he has the ability, he has the attitude, and he has the ambition. Let the games begin.
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