TWO Munster managers go toe-to-toe in a midlands Allianz NHL Division 1B opener at O’Connor Park, Tullamore this Sunday.
Former midfield giants Clare’s Ollie Baker and Cork’s Teddy McCarthy take charge of Offaly and Laois, respectively, for the first time in the NHL and considering that the winner of Division 1B will join the top three counties in Division 1A (Dublin, Kilkenny, Tipperary, Galway, Waterford & Cork) in the competition semi-finals, this a must win encounter for both sides.
Offaly didn’t begin 2012 too brightly losing a Walsh Cup quarter-final against Westmeath but they bounced back and registered victories over Wexford and DIT to retain the Walsh Shield.
While this wasn’t a success to be getting carried away, Baker took encouragement from the fitness of his charges and he also availed of the opportunity to assess the credentials of younger players in his squad.
Laois, with Willie Hyland and Tommy Fitzgerald in fine scoring form, achieved a notable Walsh Cup quarter-final win over Anthony Daly’s Dublin but they succumbed to Joe Canning inspired Galway in the semi-final at Ballinasloe.
Those two games will stand to McCarthy’s men and they’ll certainly hold no fears of facing their near neighbours. Laois have a decent league record against Offaly although Tullamore wouldn’t be the happiest of hunting grounds for them.
Offaly boss Baker and his selectors Paudge Mulhare and Mark Corrigan won’t have the services of the Coolderry contingent to call upon and their progress to the AIB All-Ireland Club Final against Loughgiel Shamrocks on St Patrick’s Day has given the county a major lift.
So if the ‘Faithful’ are to progress to a league semi-final they’ll have to do so minus the Coolderry players as three of their five Division 1B games will be played by March 18 and in fairness it is unlikely that Baker will expect them to re-join the panel ahead of the Limerick game under lights at the Gaelic Grounds in the fourth round on March 24.
The GAA has yet again revamped the NHL and you’ll have heard precious few complaints from Offaly on that score!
In 2007, after suffering a crushing 1-18 to 6-20 loss against Limerick in a play-off game at Nenagh, Offaly were due to play in Division 2 in 2008, but they gained a temporary reprieve. After plying their trade in Division 1 in ’08 Offaly were relegated and in ’09 they won the Division 2 title defeating Wexford by 1-13 to 0-13 at Semple Stadium.
2010 was Joe Dooley’s third year in charge and Division 1 status was maintained but last year the ‘Faithful’ were relegated from the ‘top eight’ and thanks to the revamp they find themselves in Division 1B as opposed to Division 2.
In addition to Offaly and Laois, Division 1B features last year’s Division 2 winners Limerick, Clare, Wexford and Antrim, so it promises to be quite competitive.
Should Offaly get off to a successful start, they’ve a break of a fortnight prior to four consecutive weekends of action which begins with a difficult away trip to Liam Dunne’s Wexford. Of course later in the year Offaly and Wexford meet in O’Connor Park in the Leinster Championship so neither county will want to give much away or give the other a psychological edge.
Offaly’s campaign concludes at home to Clare on April 1 and the side-line battle will see Baker take on his former Banner county team mate Davy Fitzgerald.
Joe Bergin and Shane Dooley featured prominently among the Leinster scorers last Sunday and this duo along with Derek Molloy and Brendan Murphy will be key men in trying to break Laois’ resistance. Bergin racked up 0-16 against DIT and he will be a serious handful for Matthew Whelan.
Team captain for 2012 David Kenny, Rory Hanniffy, Conor Mahon, Michael Verney, Diarmuid Horan and James Rigney are also likely to be included in the Offaly starting line-up.
And with so many players after been given an opportunity to impress during the Walsh Shield games three or four of them are likely to be persisted with and given further opportunity to make their mark – the likes of Brian Watkins, Stephen Wynne, Chris McDonald, Barry Harding, Tom Carroll and Dermot Mooney.
Offaly certainly can’t afford to underestimate Laois however it is a game they’ll be keen to perform well in and win.