Offaly’s Shane Rigney in action against Dublin’s Dylan Bannan during the Leinster MHC semi-final in Tullamore last Saturday. Photo: Ger Rogers.

Offaly minor hurlers set to face Laois in novel Leinster decider

Kevin Egan Column

Offaly may have contested a Leinster minor hurling final just two years ago, but this Monday night’s contest in O’Moore Park (7.30pm) is a very different affair to that fixture against Kilkenny at the same venue. Back then, Offaly reached the final after deserved wins over Westmeath, Kildare and Laois, but it was widely recognised that Kilkenny were likely to pose a much tougher threat, and so it proved as the Cats won well.

Simply beating Dublin in the semi-final represents huge progress in its own right, but even more impressive was the manner of the victory, which was utterly comprehensive. There was incredible composure shown in response to Dublin’s bright start, the defensive work was tenacious and disciplined, and up front there was outstanding movement that completely bamboozled the Dublin defence, opening up any number of opportunities.

A series of good challenge match performances against high class opposition early in the year hinted at the potential of this group, and now they face a challenge no-one could have expected – a Leinster final where supporters will travel in large numbers, not in hope, but in expectation.

Admittedly, Laois supporters will feel exactly the same. They too expected to be competitive this year, they certainly have improved immensely from their three-point defeat to Offaly in the early stages of competition, and there will be no shortage of confidence on the back of wins over Kilkenny and Wexford. Add in home advantage, plus the fact that three key Offaly players have to overcome the disappointment on Wednesday’s football result in Dublin, and it’s easy to make a case for either team here.

Losing the toss for venue won’t be a big deal to the group in that it’s not a long trip, but Laois will still enjoy their familiarity with the venue, and the feel-good factor they’ll associate with it after knocking over Kilkenny in the same field.

Like most supporters, this columnist is giddily excited about the fixture and the possibility of a famous victory, but there’s a huge task at hand yet, and at the risk of sounding indecisive, it’s hard to escape the idea that this is as close to a toss of a coin fixture as will be played anywhere this year.

End of the road for minor footballers

A remarkable championship campaign for Ken Furlong’s minor footballers came to an end on Wednesday night in Donnycarney, when the team’s excellent run of scoring in their last two games against Carlow and Laois dried up spectacularly against a Dublin side that has been watched closely as potential All-Ireland winners from a long way out.

At minor level, Dublin haven’t been anything like the dominant force that they are at senior, with just one All-Ireland title (2012) since Jim Stynes’ group won the Tom Markham Cup in 1984. Whether their 2022 team is good enough to replicate that success remains to be seen, as it’s never easy to fulfil the hype in a situation where one defeat can end your season, but Offaly certainly can take a lot of credit from their performance on Wednesday against what is undoubtedly a very talented group.

A final score of 2-13 to 2-4 would suggest a comfortable win and certainly there was no stage in the game when Dublin were in real trouble, but the margin was still a little harsh. Luke Kelly’s second-half goal dragged Offaly back into contention, and for the next ten minutes, Offaly chased the game but struggled to get the breaks, and invariably got punished when moves broke down.

It was a wholehearted effort right up until the last kick, and Niall Furlong’s goal from a free, albeit from a deflection, was no less than the group deserved, particularly given that Dublin had just scored an equally fortuitous goal at the other end.

The dream of getting back to a Leinster final may have died, but at the end of a lengthy campaign that featured six games, this is a group of players who have taken huge strides forward in their development, and who will certainly make a significant impact when they hit the adult ranks in the coming years – much more than might have been imagined at the start of the year, when expectations were quite low.

Joe McDonagh hopes depend on Kerry trip

Not unlike the minor hurlers, who need to do their best to forget about their earlier win over Laois, for Michael Fennelly and the seniors, the trick will be to forget about last season’s landslide win over Kerry in the Allianz Hurling League, as they prepare for a season-defining contest in Tralee tomorrow afternoon (Saturday, 1pm) that is almost certain to be a very different type of game.

Kerry were in utter disarray last year and frankly, their early season form in 2022 suggested that this was still the case. Stephen Molumphy made radical changes to the panel, and the decision to bring in three Limerick natives met with a mixed response, though the Waterford man was suddenly a lot more popular after he guided Kerry to that famous pre-season win over Tipperary.

Fast forward to today and they’ve been through another slump in the league, lost their first Joe McDonagh game to Down, but since come out of it with big wins over Carlow and Meath. The controversy has also faded, as the Kerry trio have been far less important to the cause than was predicted. Paudie Ahern hasn’t featured recently after making some interesting shapes early in the year, Niall Mulcahy is an impact sub more than a starter, and Louis Dee is fighting it out with the incumbent goalkeeper, Martin Stackpoole, but while depth is always welcome in any panel, he certainly doesn’t seem to represent any significant upgrade on the Lixnaw man and former Kerry captain.

It's impossible to accurately gauge where Offaly are at right now. On the form shown in Belfast, they should be too good for Kerry. There were good moments against Down certainly, and a lot of leeway has to be granted for the logistical difficulty of getting to Ballycran and hurling out there, but the home side were also a bit too close for comfort in the latter stages. And the less said about the Meath performance, the better, particularly in the second half.

This is still a very young group, learning as they go, but there’s no doubt that a few more leaders are needed up front, quickly. Eoghan Cahill is carrying a huge amount of the scoring load, Killian Sampson made a massive contribution last time out, while Jason Sampson, David Nally and Adrian Cleary are showing flashes of their ability, without delivering consistently.

The bench is also a concern, as it’s been quite some time now since Offaly managed to use the bench to pick up the pace and add extra scoring power, as opposed to trying to keep the ship afloat. Add in the home advantage aspect, and this looks like another one of those games where Offaly could really use a fast start, because the longer Kerry are left in the game, the more the crowd will become a factor, and the more home confidence will rise.

Tentatively, we’ll suggest that they still should be good enough to pick up the win, and set themselves up for a third big game against Antrim in a couple of months. That looks like a much tougher challenge, but for now, it’s all about just getting there.