Not so long ago a trip to Portlaoise to play Laois in the Leinster minor hurling championship would be expected to bring a comfortable win for Kilkenny.
Times, though, have changed. Laois are now formidable opposition.
On Saturday evening Kilkenny will travel to Portlaoise for a Leinster semi-final clash with the home side, the winners then playing either Dublin or Wexford in the final.
The sides met twice last year with Kilkenny successful on both occasions. The first outing in April in Nowlan Park was a very close game for 30 minutes. Laois started well in the second half and should have scored a goal.
Instead they conceded some soft goals which sapped their enthusiasm. Leaving Nowlan Park that evening, Laois knew they hadn’t done themselves justice.
They regrouped, beat both Offaly and Wexford and found themselves in a Leinster final in Croke Park once again facing Kilkenny. They were to leave yet another venue feeling they had not played to their potential.
Some weeks later Laois faced Galway in the All-Ireland quarter-final in Thurles for what appeared to be a daunting challenge. Galway’s minor prowess has resulted in many All-Ireland titles heading West and Laois didn’t appear to have the players to trouble the Tribesmen.
Galway duly won that game but Laois were the dominant side until the last 10 minutes, when poor decision-making cost them dearly. The display was their best of the year and it is that platform which has taken them into the 2014 championship.
A lot of eyebrows were raised when Dublin beat Kilkenny in the opening game of this year’s campaign. Losing to Dublin at minor level is no longer a surprise but the paltry 0-3 return was a shock to Kilkenny followers.
That loss meant Kilkenny had to face neighbours Carlow, needing a win to stay in the championship. The subsequent victory was not only comprehensive but we saw a more focused Kilkenny side in action.
I have sympathy with the Kilkenny mentors in that they had to work around a long colleges campaign, while preparations were also curtailed due to the Leaving Certificate examinations. I know every county has to face the exam issue but none (in Leinster) had the added distraction of a long college campaign.
One of the interesting statistics from recent Kilkenny minor teams is the representation from non-senior clubs. In the Carlow game eight senior clubs had players starting. Intermediate and junior clubs had a combined representation of seven players.
This is not a particularly relevant issue at minor level but it has much greater relevance at under-21 level. In the recent under-21 loss to Wexford Kilkenny started with only four players from senior clubs.
I have no issue with the team selected but it begs the question as to why our senior clubs had such little representation on this year’s starting under-21 team. Why is better talent not emerging from the county’s top hurling grade?
Even more worrying is comparing this year’s under-21 squad with the minor squad of three years ago. Kilkenny’s last minor championship tie in 2011 was against Waterford and, of the 28 panel members for that game, 13 players failed to make the 2014 under-21 panel.
I have no doubt that the under-21 mentors did a thorough search of every club in the county to come up with the best panel to face Wexford but where have the ‘absent 13’ gone to over the past three years?
The higher the club grade in which a player participates the better he is prepared for inter-county competition. When it comes to starting big championship games each Summer it is senior clubs who supply the bulk of the players.
Losing to Wexford at under-21 is not a shock but a 10-point defeat is a worry. The planning for next year’s campaign needs to start now.
As for Saturday’s minor tie in Portlaoise, Kilkenny must be focused against their determined hosts. Laois hurling is moving in the right direction.
Imagine the boost it would receive if they could defeat Kilkenny. Cats beware!