Allianz National Hurling League Division 2A: Laois v Down (Sunday, Portlaoise, 2pm)
O’MOORE Park doesn’t hold many happy memories for Down – but the Ardsmen will aim to put a few things right when they travel to Portlaoise for Sunday’s National League opener.
Ronan Sheehan’s side came back up the road with their tails between their legs after a chastening experience in last year’s Joe McDonagh Cup, Laois finishing up with 31 points to spare after a 7-24 to 0-14 victory.
Willie Maher’s men are already hot favourites for promotion back to Division One, with the Ardsmen among the chasing pack bidding to reach the 2A final.
And Sheehan hopes Down can show what they are truly made of this time around.
“We went down that day without CT [Caolan Taggart], we lost Matt Conlon, Darragh Mallon and John McManus during the game, so we were a bit threadbare by the end of the game - and it showed,” said the Newry Shamrocks clubman.
“I said to the guys last night, it’s the only time I’ve been with Down that I actually felt embarrassed walking onto the bus; that I felt peoples’ eyes looking at us.
“I wasn’t embarrassed for myself, I was embarrassed for Down hurling and the group of players because I know they are so much better than that performance.
“So we see Sunday as an opportunity for redemption. Now, I’m not saying we’ll go down and win this game - we could play Laois 10 times and they would win nine of them, and you’re always hoping this one will be the one in 10.
“But the most important thing is for us to be the best versions of ourselves, individually and collectively, and we’ll see where that takes us.”
Compared to this time last year, when Down started the League without midfielder Donal Hughes and the Sands brothers, Eoghan and Daithi, Sheehan has a strong hand to choose from.
Those three are all expected to start, while the experienced Danny Toner has returned to the county fold after two injury-hit years.
Toner’s Ballygalget club-mate McManus faces a race against time to make it for Sunday, while Tom McGrattan is unavailable as he undergoes a minor procedure.
It is hoped the Portaferry forward will be available for the following week’s first home game against Kerry in Ballycran, with the dynamic Tim Prenter also expected to start against Laois.
Paul Sheehan has reversed his decision to retire from the inter-county scene, further bolstering the Down panel, but a calf injury could keep Niall McFarland out for most of the League campaign.
Aside from the absence of Ross King, who is still on his travels in Australia, Laois look strong, and the Ardsmen can be expected to try and batten down the hatches earlier on to try and avoid anything like a repeat of last year’s result.