FOR THE SECOND successive week, Michael Fennelly had to pick his Offaly team up off the floor after they suffered a heavy defeat to All-Ireland contenders.
Offaly’s ambitions are a far cry away from challenging for the Liam MacCarthy – they won’t even be competing in the top tier come the championship. The Faithful are newly promoted to the Joe McDonagh, having lifted the third tier Christy Ring title last season.
They also won promotion from Division 2A in 2021, which guaranteed them a spot in the 12-team Division 1 that is split between two groups.
Offaly drew the short straw when they were drawn in 1B, with Laois and Antrim placed in 1A.
Even a round-robin game to look forward to against either of those counties would give Offaly a genuine opportunity to pick up some points.
Instead, they’ll be doing well to finish within 10 points of any team.
They lost to Galway and Cork by a combined 36 points. They still have Clare, Wexford and Limerick to play. With the championship throwing-in mid-April, most teams are seeking to hit form far earlier that previous years.
“It’s a very steep learning curve,” remarked Fennelly.
“For the team that’s progressing and has been promoted, it does very little to be honest.
“You’re in survival mode and you’re shipping big defeats and I feel for the boys, I don’t think it’s overly fair on them but that’s the system and the structure that’s there and we can’t do anything about it.
“For me it’s two to three steps from where we’re at being honest about it. You’re not going from Division 2A to another group, you’re gone two or three divisions above it. They’re just at a higher level than us at the moment.
“At the end of the day we are gearing towards the Joe McDonagh in the summer, that’s going to be massively competitive. But the speed of our play needs to increase and that doesn’t happen overnight.”
It’s hard to see things improving for them much over the coming weeks.
Antrim are competing well, having ran both Kilkenny and Dublin close over the past two weekends. They finished on five points in last year’s league, after beating Clare and Laois, and drawing with Wexford.
Darren Gleeson admitted his frustration after the game at their failure to pick up any points, but at least the Saffrons have shown they belong at this level. They’re a county on the rise, with emerging young talent have given several strong performances against more established counties.
For Offaly, that’s where they want to get to. But it’s no quick fix.
“I think they are enjoying competing against these great players who we saw on TV, are winning Munster titles and Leinster titles and going on to challenge in semi-finals and finals,” said Fennelly. “But you couldn’t be doing this every day. It can be deflating.”
Waterford recorded their biggest ever league win over Cheddar Plunkett’s Laois on Sunday. For a team dumped Dublin out of the championship in 2019, Laois have regressed significantly.
Waterford scored seven goals and left another handful behind them, while also firing over a remarkable 31 points. In years gone by, Liam Cahill might have sent out a second string outfit, but the Deise need to get their key men up and running as the Munster campaign looms.
There will be few opportunities to bed in players and fine-tune their style before their championship opener against Tipperary.
So Laois were beaten out the gate by 33 points. Like Fennelly, Plunkett must continue to fight the good fight in the weeks ahead knowing full well that further beatings are coming down the line.
Laois lost their five Division 1B games by a combined 54 points before surviving in the top flight by dint of their relegation play-off win against Westmeath.
It’s hardly any wonder players opt out of playing for weaker counties when there’s the potential to be subjected to this on a weekly basis.
No hurler wants to go out on a cold February afternoon and get walloped by one of the big guns.
However, those who do commit to a county set-up and strive to play at the top level, knowing heavy losses may come their way, should be commended.
“I feel for the boys because they’re being thrown into the deep end realistically,” added Fennelly.
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“And I do look back to Westmeath last year and I can’t get away from that. Their scorelines were 7-27, 5-34, 4-47, huge defeats and probably scoring similar to ourselves.”
It’s a difficult predicament the midland counties find themselves in. One one hand, the weaker sides should be given opportunities to test themselves against the top teams in the league.
But these one-sided games do little for confidence levels or to convince players it’s worthwhile putting in so much time to play inter-county hurling.
It has been argued that there are too many teams in Division 1, yet reducing the number of sides is effectively pulling the ladder up behind the big boys. It would do little to improve hurling in Offaly and Laois.
In fairness to the O’Moore County, they gave Tipperary their fill of it and only went down by four points in round 1. Plunkett may well write off Sunday as a poor performance. He has no other choice.
If Fennelly does go on to manage his native Kilkenny in the future, he may reflect on days like Sunday as the making of him as a manager. It will take all his man-management and motivational skills to rally his troops for three more games before they start playing teams at their own level.
The Ballyhale man took solace in the fact Westmeath conceded 20-136 after taking five heavy defeats in 2021, yet rebounded to win the McDonagh Cup.
“I do look back to Westmeath last year and I can’t get away from that. Their scorelines were 7-27, 5-34, 4-47, huge defeats and probably scoring similar to ourselves.
“They won the Joe Mc last year after shipping those heavy defeats in the league. The structure was different last year, it was only two games and you’re in the final, now you’ve five games and it’s going to be more competitive than ever I feel.
“That’s going to be massively challenging for the boys and we need to get a lot of lads back from injuries and getting healthy. But our heads are in a good place, genuinely we are and even though these are hard days, that’s the way it is.
“That’s the structure that’s there, but we need know what we need to do. That lads are learning without a doubt, but that speed doesn’t happen overnight, it takes time and it’ll come eventually.”
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