Friday 24 November 2017

Port' side to edge 'Mun

Laois champions set to bring end to Dublin hex

THE four provincial club football championships can be a contrary beast at times, and yet this year's edition has been downright predictable.

Three of the defending champions -- Crossmaglen, Dr Crokes and St Brigid's -- have retained their crowns. Meanwhile in Leinster, where holders Garrycastle didn't even make the starting grid, tomorrow's final pairing is what many would have forecast before we'd reached the quarter-final stage.

There will be new kings of Leinster, come what may, but trying to second-guess their identity is no easy task. Portlaoise are the perennial Laois standard-bearers: many of this group have a Leinster medal from 2009, plenty of them have a second one dating back to 2004, so in terms of experience, surely they have the edge.


But how much of that experience has been positive? Here's an illuminating stat when it comes to Portlaoise's recent (mis)adventures against Dublin teams: they've lost three on the bounce.

Five years ago, despite an impressive mid-game comeback, they eventually crumbled to St Vincent's by 3-13 to 1-8 after a madcap encounter. Two years ago was surely the most depressing capital encounter for Portlaoise: they led Kilmacud by seven points after ten minutes only to lose their way completely and go down by three, 2-7 to 2-4.

Then, 12 months ago, Parnell Park patrons witnessed a semi-final classic that went to extra-time before St Brigid's eventually pulled through on a scoreline of 2-16 to 1-15. Do these historic snapshots tell us anything about tomorrow? Yes and no: clearly, despite impressive periods in all three games, Portlaoise have struggled to sustain that effort for long enough when the bar was raised by Dublin's finest.

But by the same token, it would be wrong to cast definitive judgements because Ballymun Kickhams remain unproven at this level: prior to the past month, the club hadn't even played in Leinster for 27 years.

The Evening Herald caught up with the rival management teams and it was instructive -- if hardly surprising -- that both camps were keen to accentuate the prowess of the opposition compared to what they have faced before.

"Portlaoise are going to be another step-up," warned Ballymun's Paul Curran. "With due respect to Mullingar and Newbridge (Sarsfields), they were two fine teams but Portlaoise are a different animal altogether."

Portlaoise's joint-manager Mick Lillis was even more effusive. "Dublin are always the strong team in the province," he claimed. "This team is no different ... they have frightening pace in places, and they are very hard to cope with."

The counter-argument is that Portlaoise have a clear edge in experience while you could also make the point, despite some hairy semi-final moments against Emmet óg (when they coughed up two soft goals), that the six-in-a-row Laois champions are more balanced and playing at a more consistent level this season.

"We are doing okay," Lillis demurred. "The bottom line is that the Dublin championship is the best championship in the country. There are half-a-dozen teams who can win it; there's a very high level of competition that other teams (from other counties) aren't expected to face. Laois is at a huge disadvantage going in against Dublin teams that are used to that pace. And I'm not just talking about Laois; I'm talking about teams throughout the province."

Portlaoise's joint-manager disputes the notion that his players will have extra incentive against Ballymun, given their recent travails against Dublin opposition. Likewise, he doesn't see their record of just one Leinster title from the last five attempts as a sign of under-achievement.

"I think one is about all we deserved," he argued. "We don't have the level of competition (in Laois); when we come up against really quality teams, that is a huge disadvantage to us. How many would we have won if we were playing in the Dublin championship? That is the barometer really."

Is Lillis playing the poor mouth? Tomorrow will tell a tale, and even the bookies are struggling with that conundrum. Ballymun have been installed as marginal favourites and when you consider their concession rates in Leinster plus the prolific recent form of Ted Furman and especially Dean Rock, you can see why.

Our own belief, though, is that a repeat of Kickhams' semi-final display would not suffice tomorrow. True, horrendous conditions were a mitigating factor, but Ballymun were flattered by the final six-point winning margin: Sarsfields kicked 15 wides which is an indicator of the amount of possession they won in the midfield battleground.

Traditionally, midfield has not been a Portlaoise strong point but they appear to have more options this season, with Adrian Kelly and Conor Boyle both in fine form, Hugh Coghlan often interchanging with Kelly, and Craig Rogers tending to roam back into a wing-back/sweeper role.

But potential selection headaches could yet weaken their hand: Lillis confirmed injury rumours that we had heard on the grapevine but wouldn't divulge any names and said no one was yet ruled out.

As ever, much will depend on the weather and even more so on the start. Ballymun exploded from the traps in the county final against Kilmacud and also against Mullingar Shamrocks. Portlaoise did likewise when pulverising St Pat's of Wicklow and we have a hunch, no more, that they can end their Dublin hex.

ODDS: Ballymun Kickhams 10/11, Draw 7/1, Portlaoise 6/5 VERDICT: Portlaoise

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