Laois are Antrim's ultimate test in crucial Joe McDonagh Cup clash
Joe McDonagh Cup Round Two: Laois v Antrim (today, Portlaoise, 3pm)
THERE was a time when Antrim would have requested a 5pm throw-in down in O’Moore Park. By doing so they’d save a few euros on an overnight stay and bus it up and down on same day.
For a long time, this was Antrim’s standard Championship preparations.
Derided for years, Antrim officialdom has since got its act together.
In the past couple of seasons, a healthy can-do attitude has emerged at executive level.
As the Saffron Business Forum hosted another successful fundraiser in the swanky surroundings of the Crowne Plaza Hotel yesterday afternoon, the Antrim hurlers were already on their way to Portlaoise for their second Joe McDonagh Cup encounter.
“The big teams are doing this on a regular basis and we’re trying to buy into that too,” said manager Neal Peden.
“The jersey always means something to the players, but you might get a bit extra out of them when they see the professional set-up.”
In preparation for last weekend’s McDonagh Cup opener against Kerry, the Antrim hurlers self-funded a four-day training camp to Portugal.
The excuse culture has evaporated – and they duly hammered the Kerrymen by 14 points in Dunloy, limiting their hapless visitors to just four points from play.
The fact that Kerry scrubbed three subs from their teamsheet before the game and played far too defensively in the first half despite a stiff breeze at their backs, while manager Fintan O’Connor bemoaned the ravaging effects of the club-only month of April down in the Kingdom suggests all was not right with their preparations.
That said, it was hard to find a weakness in Antrim’s display.
Ballycastle’s 20-year-old rookie Conor Boyd played the defensive sweeper’s role like a seasoned veteran.
Stephen Rooney and Phelim Duffin gave nothing away in the corners and the totemic John ‘Rocky’ Dillon has the kind of presence that all good full-backs have.
There was a nice blend in attack too with Ryan McCambridge and Conor McCann winning ugly ball, while there is plenty of magic dust in Keelan Molloy, Eoin O’Neill, James McNaughton and Ciaran Clarke. All six forwards had scored from play in the opening 30 minutes.
And it was encouraging from an Antrim perspective that midfielder Neil McManus didn’t have to play like Cú Chulainn to drag the Saffrons over the finishing line.
On the evidence of last week’s showing, Kerry could prove to be this summer’s McDonagh Cup whipping boys with Laois expected to be a much tougher opponent for Antrim in O’Moore Park this afternoon.
The O’Moore men recorded a thrilling opening day win over Offaly, 4-22 to 3-21, last weekend – a game that deserved the presence of at least one RTE camera.
Despite that win and a surprise appearance in this season’s NHL quarter-finals – ending in a 17-point loss to All-Ireland champions Limerick - it hasn’t been all plain sailing down in Laois.
Even though new manager Eddie Brennan rolled into town with eight All-Ireland medals and 11 Leinster title wins against his name didn’t stop some Laois players calling time on their hurling careers.
Experienced corner-forward Ross King initially opted out only to return to the Laois camp on the eve of the McDonagh Cup campaign.
Described by captain Paddy Purcell as the “best forward in Laois if not the best forward in the Joe McDonagh Cup”, King boosted an already impressive attack by bagging four points from play in their last-gasp win over Offaly last Saturday evening.
Last season, Laois punctured Antrim’s season on two fronts.
In March, they relegated Antrim out of Division 1B with two points to spare, and a couple of months later they burst their balloon in a McDonagh Cup meeting, winning by a point – with both games taking place in Dunloy.
Over the course of those two games there has been slightly more personnel changes in Laois than in Antrim. The absence of Arron Graffin aside, Antrim might feel their defence has a more solid look about it in 2019.
And they’ll need to prove that this hunch has some merit against Laois’s free-scoring forward unit of King, ‘Cha’ Dwyer, Willie Dunphy, Purcell and last week’s super sub Stephen Bergin.
Laois have been playing at a higher level than Antrim this season – although the environs of Division 1B didn’t help either side when the McDonagh Cup kicked off last summer, with both finishing fourth and fifth.
But whoever emerges victorious in O’Moore Park this afternoon will feel confident of reaching the McDonagh decider on June 30.
“This is a step up,” acknowledged Peden.
“Laois are hot favourites but we’re going down there with confidence, and it’s not just from the Kerry result – it’s our preparation as a whole. The Kerry game went the way we wanted it to go and people are playing the way we want them to play. If we can do that again I think we can be a match for Laois.”
Both Laois and Antrim are unchanged from last week, with Eoghan Campbell on the visitors’ bench after serving a suspension last week.
Laois: (v Antrim): E Rowland; D Hartnett, M Whelan, J Phelan; P Delaney, R Mullaney, L Cleere; J Lennon, J Kelly; C Dwyer, W Dunphy, P Purcell; M Kavanagh, E Lyons, R King
Antrim (v Laois): R Elliott; S Rooney, J Dillon, P Duffin; P Burke, C Boyd, M Donnelly; N McManus, N McKeague; J McNaughton, R McCambridge, K Molloy; C Clarke, C McCann, E O’Neill Subs: E Gillan, D Kearney, N Elliott, M Burke, J Maskey, D McCloskey, K Rice, C McHugh, R Molloy, E Campbell, J O’Connell