This Sunday the Laois hurlers will belatedly begin their 2021 season with a trip to Wexford Park to take on Davy Fitzgerald’s side in the opening round of the National Hurling League.
It’s hard to know what we can expect of that game. A first outing for both teams in six months; a first competitive game for Laois under Cheddar Plunkett; and less than two months before they’ll play each other in the opening round of the Leinster championship.
There will be a new sin-bin for certain cynical tackles inside the 20-metre line or within the ‘D’ and there will be an obvious desire to get as much game time as possible for the respective panels.
The league will have an unusual dynamic this year. There are no knockout stages and the possibility of joint winners. But there is relegation – and a playoff involving the bottom team in each of the two groups.
So while teams can’t strive to reach the knockout stages, they must do enough to avoid the drop.
For Laois that means they’ll have to win at least one game. Given that you have to go back to 2011 for the last time Laois beat a Liam MacCarthy team in the league and have lost all 28 games since against top level opposition, a win against a Wexford, Dublin, Kilkenny or Clare would be significant even in this year’s slightly-diluted competition.
A final round game against Antrim in Belfast will be a must-win you’d imagine regardless.
Under a new manager and a whole new backroom team, what can we expect of Laois? How will they play and who will fill the key positions.
In Cheddar’s previous term, Laois favoured a defensive style including at least one extra defender – the same was the case in the big games under Eddie Brennan. But there will be subtle differences between their respective approaches and implementing a new system will take a bit of getting used to.
Here we take a look at the likely contenders for the various positions.
Enda Rowland was an All Star nominee in 2019 and captain last year, a role he is likely to continue in this time. He’ll be Number 1 again this season with back up provided by Ballinakill’s Paul Simms.
In the seven games that Laois played last year (five league and two championship), five different players started in the full-back position.
Podge Delaney, Ryan Mullaney and Frank Flanagan started in the first three league games before the experienced Matthew Whelan came in for the must-win clash against Carlow and then the dead rubber against Kilkenny.
But by the time the championship came around Sean Downey started the two games there having only returned to the panel in the second part of the season.
For the first time since he broke on to the panel, Matthew Whelan didn’t feature at all in the championship and he’ll be keen to force his way back in under the new regime.
Lee Cleere and Donnchadh Hartnett were the preferred corner-backs in Brennan’s time with younger players like Diarmuid Conway, Liam Senior and Allan Connolly all likely to see game time too.
Eric Killeen and Ronan Broderick are both on the long-term injured list which is unfortunate for two players who had been forcing themselves into consideration.
Ryan Mullaney and Podge Delaney were ever-presents in the Eddie Brennan era while Jack Kelly will be keen to get back to the 2019 form that saw him nominated for an All Star. Portlaoise’s Ciaran McEvoy played most of last year’s league before making his debut in the championship and will be in the mix again too.
With positions so inter-changeable, wing-back, midfield and the half forwards will all probably up against each other for a starting place.
Fiachra C Fennell started every game last year in midfield in what was his debut season but could also be a half back option where he has always excelled for Rosenallis.
Others that could see game time in midfield are Paddy Purcell, James Ryan, John Lennon and James Keyes.
Ciaran Collier has also rejoined the panel for the first time since 2017 and he could be an option anywhere from the half-back line up.
There are a number of forwards struggling with injury with Mark Kavanagh out for the year and Picky Maher and Willie Dunphy recovering from knee problems.
And while they are three top players to be without, the return of Cha Dwyer, Eanna Lyons and PJ Scully negates that somewhat.
Ross King and Aaron Dunphy have been very good in recent seasons and should be starters but depending on the make up of the half back line and midfield and the system that Laois are playing, there will be a handful of other players in line to feature up front.
Stephen Bergin was coming on nicely in 2019 and the early part of 2020 and could progress further while younger players like Eoin Gaughan, Mark Hennessy and David Dooley are all worth keeping an eye on too.
Should Dooley see game time he will be in the unusual position of playing competitive senior county hurling before he has even played adult for his club Rosenallis. He is in his first year out of minor but has been brought straight into the set up.
Laois’s league campaign sees them play Wexford this Sunday before hosting Dublin in O’Moore Park the following Saturday. They then have Clare at home the following Sunday before a weekend off and then a trip to Kilkenny. They finish up a week later against Antrim.
They will then have a week off before they play Wexford again in the championship.
This year’s hurling championship is again a knockout with a backdoor element.