Saturday 22 October 2016

Roche's Point: Cats still get the cream but don’t forget about Cheddar

Laois manager Seamus Plunkett
Laois manager Seamus Plunkett

TWO contrasting weekend snapshots from a senior hurling championship yet to ignite. Cheddar Plunkett, standing on the pitch in Portlaoise, lamenting the GAA's perennial failure to spread the hurling gospel beyond the traditional ruling elite.

Then, less than 24 hours later in Croke Park, Kilkenny making (yet another) emphatic statement of intent. They didn't so much crush their Leinster final opponents … merely suffocate the life out of a previously gung-go Galway.

And so, the Liam MacCarthy holders amble into another All-Ireland semi-final - the 16th on Brian Cody's 17-year watch. They have played just twice to reach this familiar penultimate juncture, and won by a cumulative 31 points.

Over those 140 minutes they have been as relentless as they ever were under Cody. Their workrate when not in possession remains savage - the type of intensity you associate with first-time wannabe winners, not trophy-laden veterans.

As 14 wides underline, they weren't as ruthless against Galway as they were against Wexford; but still you never got a sense, even after being hauled back to parity soon after half-time, that they weren't in full control of their own destiny.

Now they will disappear from view for five weeks and re-emerge, on August 9, doubtless having upped the intensity ante even further. You can only admire their insatiable appetite for hard graft which - when combined with ring craft, technical excellence and their sometimes overlooked tactical savvy - makes them the team to beat. Always. Even on those rare occasions when they aren't the holders.


What has all this got to do with a certain Laois manager? Good question, but Cheddar Plunkett deserves an audience just as much as Brian Cody. The Laois hurling heartland is only across the Kilkenny border. It's a small parish of devotees but, even if they don't have the Celtic Crosses to show for their efforts, they too are consumed by the game.

Yet, according to Plunkett, Laois and their ilk are being paid lip service. "I can't say this more clearly to people who have influence here," he said after Saturday's 4-17 to 0-19 qualifier defeat to Dublin. "There is an opportunity in Laois at the moment to do something absolutely brilliant. There are a lot of businesses out there trying to flog products and they don't have the natural customers that you see in this field at the minute," he added, to a whizzing chorus of sliotars on the O'Moore Park pitch.

"I've presented it to enough people at GAA headquarters but for some reason they just close their eyes to this and that is just incredibly disappointing."

Plunkett reiterated that he would say the same thing about Westmeath, Carlow and others - small counties that don't possess the same revenue-generating potential as the bigger fish.


Of course it's not all about money … and what Plunkett has achieved in his three seasons at the Laois helm shows what can be done, up to a point. In 2011, the county hurlers leaked TEN goals to Cork en route to a 34-point qualifier rout. A year later, they were arguably even more abject when losing to Dublin in Leinster by 22 points.

On Saturday, the statistical gap with Dublin was down to ten points - even that doesn't quantify the progress made under Cheddar, reflected in close-run defeats to Galway in 2013 and '14, then this year's history-making win over Offaly.

And maybe the current Leinster qualifying structure does actually work: Laois bow out of an All-Ireland race they could never win after playing six matches, whereas Kilkenny could retain Liam after just four run-outs.

But what of the day when Cheddar calls time … might Laois fall off the cliff once more? Or are the local structures in place, supported by Leinster and Croke Park, to bring the Laoises of this world onto the next level?

True, since last year, Croke Park is investing a total of €1m-plus over a five-year period to develop hurling in five mid-ranking counties (Antrim, Carlow, Laois and Westmeath, with the fallen Offaly giants later added). It's a start.

But as Cheddar argued: "It's about a complete vision for hurling. How we're going to promote the game. What is the objective here? Is the objective for the next 40 years to have an All-Ireland championship where only three counties can win it? Because we've had that for the last 40 years."

Just a small exaggeration. And if Cody keeps motoring, it won't even be that.

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