After a sometimes bruising league campaign, the Laois senior hurlers are gearing up for the 2021 championship which gets underway this weekend against Wexford in Nowlan Park.
Seamas ‘Cheddar’ Plunkett’s second coming has not quite gone to plan thus far as Laois are still in search of their first win.
Their league campaign brought heavy defeats against Wexford, Clare and Dublin – albeit improved showings against Kilkenny and Antrim in the last two outings.
Laois’s 2021 league campaign is merely put on ice however as they will have to face Westmeath in a league playoff whenever both teams are finished their respective championships.
Over the five league games, almost every member of the Laois panel saw some sort of action.
From the group that started, Colm Stapleton has departed while Mark Hennessy and Allan Connolly have gone back to concentrate on the U-20 championship.
There is mixed news on the injury front too. John Lennon and Diarmaid Conway were both hurt in the Antrim defeat and will be unavailable for this game.
Podge Delaney damaged his ankle in the defeat against Dublin on May 15 and hasn’t been seen since – although he may be back in contention here.
Mark Kavanagh, Eric Killeen and Ronan Broderick remain sidelined too and are not expected to play any part this year.
But manager Plunkett did get some players back as the league campaign progressed with Stephen ‘Picky’ Maher, Willie Dunphy and Eanna Lyons all returning at different stages while Ryan Mullaney, injured before the Dublin game, recovered to play in the last two.
On balance, Plunkett’s hand is probably stronger than the one he started with.
Here we take a look at the likely contenders for the various positions.
Enda Rowland was an All Star nominee in 2019 and is joint-captain this year alongside Willie Dunphy.
He started every league game this season and will remain as Number 1 with back up provided by Ballinakill’s Paul Simms.
Only four players started in these positions throughout the league and injury to one of those makes the guessing pretty simple here.
Sean Downey started every game at full back and largely did very well. Donnchadh Hartnett, Diarmaid Conway and Lee Cleere filled the corner back positions around him.
With Conway’s injury, it appears most likely the remaining two will get the nod. Matthew Whelan’s only appearance this season was against Clare with Frank Flanagan a late sub against Antrim – while Clonaslee’s Liam Senior was not used at all.
This is certainly more competitive than the full back line – with six players operating here throughout the league.
It started off as Ryan Mullaney, Podge Delaney and Jack Kelly – with Ciaran McEvoy, Stephen Maher and Conor Phelan appearing there at different stages.
Jack Kelly played in midfield against Antrim and scored five points from play – so he could well be an option there too against Wexford.
Stephen Maher’s reinvention as a half back has worked really well and Ryan Mullaney was excellent in his return against Antrim. Ciaran McEvoy was really good in the second half against Kilkenny and carried that form to Belfast too.
If Podge Delaney is fit, he’ll surely be pushing for a start too.
Just four players have played here during the league and one of those, John Lennon, is out through injury leaving a choice between three.
Jack Kelly started four games on the half back line but his performance against Antrim showed he’d be more than capable here.
Paddy Purcell and Fiachra C-Fennell were the preferred option up to that – so it will be interesting to see what manager Plunkett decides to do.
Like the half back line, this is extremely competitive seven players having filled the number 10, 11 and 12 jerseys over the five games.
Ciaran Collier, James Ryan, Eanna Lyons, Cha Dwyer, Aaron Dunphy, Ciaran Comerford and James Keyes have all operated there at various stages.
Ciaran Collier is probably in the strongest position having started every game to date with James Ryan only one appearance behind him.
Cha Dwyer could easily operate in the full forward line if required while Aaron Dunphy made a big impact off the bench against Antrim following a quiet league up to that point.
Eanna Lyons provides strength and height as he feels his way back after a long injury lay off while Comerford and Keyes are lively players.
A difficult decision to be made here.
Ross King is the only member of the group of players who have filled this line of the field to have started in every game.
PJ Scully played in them all but was a sub against Antrim and operated at centre forward against Clare.
Willie Dunphy only returned for the last two while Eoin Gaughan plus the aforementioned Keyes, Dwyer and Comerford have also played.
One would imagine though that the most likely combination is probably King, Scully and Dunphy.