The Laois minor hurlers stand just one game from a Leinster final tonight (Wednesday), as they welcome Wexford to O’Moore Park for the Leinster semi-final.
They will do so without centre back and captain Darren Houlihan who has failed in his appeal to have his suspension from the quarter final win over Dublin overturned. Houlihan was injured on the day but was acting as maor uisce for the team, and was reported for getting involved with the Dublin full forward off the ball.
It is a small consolation for Laois that they have the experience of coming through a game without their captain, but his absence is still a massive blow to the team. Houlihan’s absence is compunded by the current doubts over the man who replaced him at centre back against Dublin, as Kilcotton’s Willie Campion is struggling with an ankle injury. He has been given every chance to make the game, and has been named in the team, but it remains to be seen if has recovered enough to start.
Laois can’t afford to dwell on the current negatives however, as they will have to be totally focussed in their bid to topple a Wexford side who come in to the game as red hot favourites.
They have had just one game already in this year’s Leinster championship, when they recorded a comfortable 1-19 to 1-9 victory over Dublin up in Parnell Park. That game was played on May 2, so they have had to wait a long time for this game to come round, and if Laois could get into their stride early they might be able to take advantage of Wexford’s lack of games in the last few weeks.
The Wexford attack caught the eye against Dublin, with all bar one of their total of 1-19 against Dublin accounted for by the six starting forwards. The real danger is on their half forward line, where wing forward Liam Óg McGovern and centre forward Craig Doyle both hit 0-4 from play. Corner forward Niall Murphy will be on the frees, and he hit 0-7 the last day, six of which were from placed balls, while the other corner forward Ian Byrne chipped in with 1-1.
The task facing the Laois defence is huge, and they will need help from further out the field to prevent the Wexford midfielders and wing backs from picking out balls into the forward line. Players like Tony Ryan, Gearoid Burke and Paul Harding around the middle of the field will have to run themselves into the ground to keep the pressure on the Wexford players in possession.
Wexford can’t afford to take this Laois team for granted either, and they will be quietly confident of giving them a run for their money. The Laois attack has a few aces up its sleeve as well, and in Neil Foyle they have a full forward which most full backs at this grade in the country would struggle to cope with.
He has racked up 3-12 in just two games so far this year, and when Laois met Wexford in the Leinster championship last year, he finished the day with 1-8. Darren King is another who will be known to Wexford after he hit 1-2 from play against them last year, and his introduction against Dublin last time out was a big factor in Laois pushing on for the win, and Willie Dunphy at corner forward has a good eye for goal, scoring 1-1 in both games so far.
There is serious competition for places in this Laois team too, and despite missing Houlihan and King from the start the last day, there was still enough talent in the squad to come in and take their place. The panel has been added to since then also, with Philip O’Connell from Portlaoise and David Freeman from The Harps called in. Daragh Cushen has returned to the panel after taking time off to concentrate on his exams, while Eoin Whelan from Borris in Ossory, cousin of senior player Matthew Whelan, has been recovering well from a knee injury.
It’s not every day or even every year a Laois hurling team will get to play a Leinster semi-final in O’Moore Park. County hurling teams are facing into a big few weeks, which will have a big bearing on the future of the game in the county. The players who are going out trying to shape that future deserve all the support they can get, and hopefully O’Moore Park will prove to be an intimidating place for Wexford tonight.
Rory Delaney, Leinster Express