Laois legend Niall Rigney: 'Finally we have a team to support'
AS a retired Laois hurler of notable repute and former manager too, Niall Rigney has been through the emotional wringer more than once. Last Sunday week brought a different type of emotion for Rigney, the spectator: a pure, unadulterated explosion of joy.
"A great day, fantastic," he waxes of that lyrical performance that yielded 29 points and an historic victory over Offaly. "It was great for all us hurling people around the county. To be fair, there's a lot of great hurling supporters in Laois and for a long time we just didn't have a team to support.
"Whereas now we have a team to support, our supporters are coming out en masse ... and we're incredibly proud of the players and Cheddar and the management team."
Cheddar, aka Séamus Plunkett, is the manager responsible for Laois hurling's rise back to respectability. In each of the last two summers his team has rattled Galway's cage.
Tomorrow evening in Tullamore (5.0) they will hope it's a case of third-time lucky, this time with an even bigger prize at stake - a first Leinster SHC final appearance in three decades and, with that, a chance to claim their first provincial title since 1949.
Yet, it's only a few weeks since Cheddar resigned for a week, mid-championship, after two of his panellists featured in a club challenge match against his wishes. Was Rigney at all worried that the episode might unravel their quest for a first championship win over Offaly since 1972?
"No I wasn't, to be honest," the Portlaoise man demurs. "Cheddar's a clubmate of my own and we played together for a long time as teammates and we won senior championships together. I'd know the way he operates.
"Coming up to the game, I was more worried maybe three weeks out when I was looking at them playing Carlow and Westmeath. Because I thought they were very flat. I thought their performance wasn't up to scratch.
"There was a sort of frustration in their play and, just from talking to a couple of the players, I felt that maybe they had been overdoing things."
Rigney surmises that this "staleness" stemmed from the spring pressure of trying to stave off relegation.
"They ended up in a relegation game with Antrim to stay in Division 1B," he recalls.
"We lost our first game to Offaly in the league and, straight away, we were on the back foot where every game was like a championship game to us. There was such a huge effort put into it."
Then came the "bit of controversy", causing Rigney to remark to a few of the players that this could actually work in Laois's favour.
"Basically things were upside down for about a week, it was about the players just getting away from all that controversy, not listening to anything or taking phone calls or anything like that. And they actually got a break - from training, from everything," he explains.
"I spoke to Cheddar on it and that's the angle we came from … that break could work in our favour. And he worked it brilliantly.
"He named a team but did a 'Loughnane', I suppose, on it where he didn't put out the real team until the day of the game. And he did that to protect Matthew (Whelan, one of those who played the club challenge) and stuff like that. And it worked in our favour because the lads were just jumping out of their skin with freshness, and trying to prove a point to themselves that the effort they had put in, up to now, wasn't deserving of people criticising them and saying 'Oh, typical Laois' and all the usual s*** that went on in the past."
Now the litmus test: can they repeat the trick against Galway?
"It all depends - they're young fellas - on how they react to the Offaly win," says Rigney, who stresses the importance of "a proper start", thus denying Galway the chance to reprise their penchant for flying starts that buried Kilkenny in the 2012 Leinster final and Dublin 13 days ago.
"If a Laois team shows up full of confidence and full of honesty and bravery and heart and desire, and in the knowledge that they have the fitness levels and the belief … of course we can," he offers. "Because our hurling is right up there."
I spoke to
Cheddar on it and that's the angle we came from … that break could work in our favour. He worked it