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Moral Victories No Longer Felt In Laois Hurling

It was another case of what might have been for the Laois hurlers on Sunday as they faced up against Galway, rattled the Westerners but ultimately fell just short at the final hurdle for the second year in succession as Galway’s class and better conditioning showed.

Nobody would wish to celebrate noble failure – least of all Seamus ‘Cheddar’ Plunkett and his players – but looking at where Laois have come from to where they stand now in the space of a few years deserves immeasurable credit. From a situation where Cork could travel to Portlaoise and inflict a 10-20 to 1-13 beating in 2011, Laois hurling has got its respect back but it’s now a question of making that next big step.

Take into account these comments by Laois hurling star Willie Hyland in July 2012:

“The players have been lambasted for years but no Laois hurler ever stood up and said what’s going on. I’m not here to talk about myself — this is about Laois hurling and the depression we feel, the whole scene is beating us down.”

“If speaking out improves the set-up in any way, I’ll do it. I held my thunder during the year but the truth is we need a complete restructure behind the scenes and for the senior team. We need a modern-day coach because we are just miles behind. I’ve been marking Stephen Hiney for almost seven years — and we’ve had good battles — but I couldn’t believe the condition he was in a few weeks ago. It was like being hit by a bulldozer. Most of us train five or six nights a week but we’re light years behind.”

With limited resources but with a coach in ‘Cheddar’ Plunkett who clearly knows what he’s doing and commands the respect of his players, they have turned it around to become a competitive county side across the season. Sunday’s game was no aberration.

From the beginning of February in the league, Laois recorded an important psychological win by beating Offaly while also beating Antrim to ensure Division 1B survival. Allied to that, they produced enormously commendable displays against Cork (0-14 to 0-07), Limerick (1-17 to 1-13) and Wexford  (2-21 to 1-18). Although that did not result in the all-important breakthrough victory, it did bring self-belief and respect back to the jersey. But yet working from the base that Hyland outlines above, Laois can only go so far on their own.

To be fair to the GAA, they did back the progress of teams such as Laois (as well as work being done in Antrim, Carlow and Westmeath) earlier this year by providing €900,000 in grant aid to be divided equally by each the four aforementioned county boards over the next 5 years – that amounts to €45,000 per county team per season. It’s a nice touch but compare it then to the €8m (€2m of this is being provided by Dublin GAA) development on a new ‘national’ GAA centre of excellence in Blanchardstown, Dublin. At the time, the GAA claimed that ‘surrounding counties’ could use these facilities also apart from Dublin but weigh that up against comments by Dublin GAA chairman Andy Kettle:

“Our interest is huge because we don’t have a centre of excellence. Our county teams are training all over the place. This gives us an opportunity to centralise it. Obviously, geographically it suits us.”

“If you look at the surrounding counties, Meath have theirs; Louth have Darver; Wicklow are in the process of finishing theirs; Kildare have Hawkfield.”

“The requested usage from those counties may not be terribly high. I would certainly see requested usage from counties coming up to play matches in Croke Park at weekends.”

So effectively it is Dublin’s own centre of excellence for all their county teams in both codes across the age groups bar the odd weekend in the summer when teams from elsewhere may want to use it. This is not a rant against Dublin but how is it right that given the county board had €2m already set aside for a centre of excellence – aligned with their commercial advantages Dublin already have versus all other counties – but can effectively be given a gift of an additional €6m for this facility?

Compare this to county boards and volunteers in Laois, Carlow, Antrim and Westmeath who are trying to keep hurling alive and competitive in these counties on €45,000 per annum then. The contrast in those figures puts things in some perspective does it not?

There are ‘Cheddar’ Plunkett’s and dedicated groups of hurling players across the country trying to make the breakthrough. But for every step forward these teams make, the elite teams will always have an edge in terms of training, quality and tradition. But it is not an impossible challenge.

Ask Offaly who won their first Leinster hurling title in 1980 and their first All-Ireland in 1981. This would not have been possible only for a scheme set up by the GAA at the time to support hurling development in non-traditional counties with South Offaly in particular being a hotbed of hurling waiting to be harnessed.

The question now is whether the GAA really want Laois to be successful? €45,000 per annum will keep them standing still but it is hardly a number that ensures anything else or any significant progress to be made.

It all comes down to priorities. But then again, noble failure for Laois in June sounds just fine when it can be balanced by Galway and other elite counties bringing big crowds to provincial grounds and Croke Park as the summer progresses.

Money talks louder than the cries of a small second tier hurling county trying to make the breakthrough.

Stephen Twomey, Pundit Arena.

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