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Effort key for Laois in battle Royal

TRACING lines of form into the final round of All-Ireland SFC qualifiers can often be a trivial pursuit, and in the case of Meath and Laois, almost all the indicators are certainly muddied and blurred by variables.

Meath are favourites. Laois are on a winning streak which amounts to three qualifier victories in succession.

Yet the Royals have taken out Kildare whereas Laois' prized scalp is 'only' Monaghan.

Seamus McEnaney's men were within three points and, as it has been generally branded since, 'two minutes of madness' of the All-Ireland champions.

On the same weekend, Justin McNulty's side beat Leitrim ... narrowly, when he admitted "relief" rather than satisfaction was the overriding emotion afterwards.

And then you've got the dreaded six-day turnaround to factor in on behalf of the Royals.

"Meath have hugely talented players who, were it not for two minutes or madness before half-time against the All-Ireland Champions and a brilliant Cluxton save, that game could have been very different," McNulty told the Herald this week in the lead up to the match which could yet generate something very positive from a wildly oscillating season for Laois.

"So we would be very aware of a Meath team who have good defenders, natural midfielders and very talented forwards. We're under no illusions about the challenge there in front of us.

"For us, it's all about our performance. We can affect our performance, our work-rate and our intensity."

For the record, McNulty cares not a jot for Meath's plight - the six-day hoodoo. There are, in his managerial headspace, things you can control and things you can't and Meath's frame of mind or body is exactly none of his concern.

"All we can do is try and control our own performance," he repeats.

It is, however, a watershed for the poisoned six-day chalice. As of 2013, no beaten provincial finalists will ever again be subject to such a swift turnaround prior to their last-12 match and, as it stands, just one team (Dublin in 2001 versus Sligo) have conquered its logistical and psychological pitfalls.

Tomorrow, both Meath and Down are 1/2 to banish the six-day demon, however, meaning the tradition could, if the formbook holds strong, go out in a flurry.

McNulty is preoccupied this week with making sense and deriving logic from his own team's ascendency into the last 12 of the All-Ireland SFC.

Unrest

Back in May, when they wasted a six-point lead and lost to Longford in Leinster, such a juncture seemed a galaxy away. Local unrest made it as far as the county board where the team's tactics and style were called into question.

The players retreated to the sanctuary of their clubs. McNulty himself, to the drawing board, probably unsure as to what the response would be.

Happily for him, it has been predominantly positive.

"Firstly, the players have shown great character," he praises. "That's one thing. That defeat was a huge disappointment to us. But we stayed together and we stayed tight.

"The management don't do it by themselves. It's up to every member of the panel to commit themselves to the group and, so far, the response has been good.

"The team has grown. They're working for each other. Getting those victories brings you on. And the more games you have as a team, you naturally improve and Laois are no different."

Against Leitrim, there were bits to admire but plenty to be concerned about, too. Brendan Quigley gave an exhibition in midfield but like their Longford defeat, dominance in the middle third didn't necessarily equate to scores.

They shot a stack of wides 18 high, another affliction which precluded them from progressing in Leinster. And while the effort and character was certainly there, McNulty knows a greater level of execution will be required to get past Meath, however low they may be after losing to Dublin.

"We won the game and we can take a lot of encouragement from that," he reflects of their near scare in Carrick-on-Shannon, not a million miles removed from their close call with Carlow in the first round.

"For every team at this stage of the competition, players want to be playing competitive football and there is no better way than playing week-in, week-out.

Change

"To be playing at the highest level week-in, week-out is what everyone wants. But in terms of what you can actually change in a week, you can try and tweak a few things. But it's all about on the day."

On Meath, McNulty falls on the 'they put Dublin under pressure' side of the argument in explanation of how a handsome lead was made threadbare by the frantic close of the Leinster final and so is suitably wary.

"They're very talented and it's going to be a big challenge.

"We need to outwork Meath and outfight Meath," he concludes. "But we can only control what we do ourselves on the day and if we do that, we have a great chance."