Offaly's Jason Sampson in action against Patrick Purcell of Laois during last year's Joe McDonagh Cup match which was won by Offaly. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile.

Hurlers bid to follow footballers' lead by beating Laois

By Kevin Egan

So, with the first half of the “sacking of Portlaoise” mission completed by the Offaly footballers, the baton has been handed to the senior hurlers in advance of Sunday’s Joe McDonagh Cup opener (2pm). The Offaly hurlers will make the short journey south/east with the favourites’ tag attached, albeit very slight favourites.

A decent Division One campaign will certainly have played a part in that, though recent challenge match form has taken more than a little bit of gloss off the performances against Wexford and Clare and, to a lesser extent, Waterford and Kilkenny.

Laois’ form is not too easy to read either, and a five-point home defeat to Carlow, followed up a month later with a 13-point win down the road in Netwatch Cullen Park, is a fair measure of the topsy-turvy nature of the O’Moore County’s form.

For the majority of the history of this rivalry, there was never too much needed to generate a little bit of heat on the pitch. A trip across the Slieve Blooms into the traditional heartlands of Clonaslee or Camross would no doubt result in an encounter somewhere with a grizzled old soul who would argue that Offaly’s breakthrough in the early 1980s could just as easily have been a Laois breakthrough but for Pádraig Horan’s “wide” goal in the 3-20 to 6-10 classic in 1981, and how the two counties were set on very different paths that day.

It felt like a lot of Laois demons were laid to rest in 2015 when they secured a 0-29 to 0-21 win in a Leinster SHC quarter-final, a winning margin that was both emphatic, and yet understated the scale of the home side’s dominance, given that Offaly got off to a strong start against a strong wind.

Since then, Offaly have won two of the three championship games between the sides, but it would still be a stretch to say that either team could claim with any real conviction to be the stronger team right now.

Yet for all this history, it’s notable that Laois manager Willie Maher chose recently to try and stoke the fires of resentment when he referred to the sense of grievance that was felt in Laois last year on the back of Offaly’s decision to field a weakened team in their final round robin game against Carlow - a game in which Carlow’s victory ensured that they would contest the McDonagh Cup final against Offaly, and that Laois would miss out.

For a host of reasons, the claim holds no water whatsoever. Laois had their chance to beat Carlow, and couldn’t do it. Offaly put out their full team in the championship final against Carlow in Croke Park, and couldn’t beat them either, so it was hardly guaranteed that a full strength Offaly team would have won in Carlow. And above all, had Offaly chosen to risk injuries and fatigue by sending out their “best” team in that game at Cullen Park, that could have been seized upon as a clear statement of “choosing” to play Laois in the final, which would have been used as a motivational tool as well.

Maher’s choice to try and look for a perceived slight on the Offaly side is a little odd in that context, as in terms of both history and the importance of this game to both sides, no additional motivation should be needed, and it should be all about controlling the natural energy that exists.

In hurling terms, this is a very tough game to call. Laois have a lot of their ducks in a row, with four or five scoring forwards in strong scoring form, an elite goalkeeper in Enda Rowland, a top class defensive spine with Ryan Mullaney at 3 and Podge Delaney at 6, and a potential game breaker at midfield in the shape of Paddy Purcell. Add in a couple of real springers from the U-20 ranks in the shape of Tom Cuddy and Jer Quinlan, and there is a lot to like about the setup.

While it’s hard to split these two counties, it’s also true to say that Westmeath are probably entitled to be considered the McDonagh Cup front runners, given that neither Offaly nor Laois have had a result like Westmeath’s away win over Wexford in last year’s Leinster championship.

Goals came at the right time for Offaly last year, and if the sides had met a second time after that initial clash in Tullamore, there was no reason why Laois would have had any fears of Offaly next time around.

They won’t have any fears this time either, but that little niggle about whether their heads are in the right place leaves this columnist with an optimistic heart about Offaly's chances ahead of what is a huge game for both teams.