The hurling championship threw up its first real shock of not only this but the last few years with the brilliant victory for Laois over hot favourites Dublin last weekend.
A victory that takes Laois to the dizzy heights of an All-Ireland quarter final against Tipperary this Sunday in Croke Park.
I have to say whilst I like many was surprised by the result, I wasn’t shocked. I watched Laois play Antrim in the Joe McDonagh down in O’Moore Park earlier in the year and was impressed by what I saw.
They won the game by seven or eight points but in truth I felt the final score flattered Antrim a bit even though Laois keeper Enda Rowland was probably man of the match. I was impressed by their physique, their mobility and above all their ball distribution which was always with a purpose.
They looked like a top team to me and they have now proven it by breaking into what is effectively the top six teams in the country. We shouldn’t forget that Dublin knocked out a highly-fancied Galway in the round robin, so they are up there with the best.
Their success will have given all those middle tier McDonagh teams, Antrim included, a renewed focus and a belief that it is possible to compete against the top tier when everything falls into place.
But how did Laois make things fall into place? It goes without saying that enormous credit must go to their manager Eddie Brennan, the Kilkenny legend and multiple Celtic Cross winner.
Brennan took a massive gamble leaving the relative comfort of the RTE studio, where he was an excellent pundit, to take on the Laois job. Before he took over the set up was in a state of disarray, struggling to get players out and with club frictions to the fore following the contentious county final last year between Camross and Rathdowney-Errill which resulted in star player Ross King being seriously injured and opting out of County hurling only to be persuaded back by the charismatic Brennan.
I am sure Brennan will have done his research before committing and will have known that for all their problems Laois have some very talented players with a very good age profile, many below the age of 25.
Undoubtedly his first job would have been to change the culture, generate a bit of positivity by weeding out anyone not totally committed to the cause and prepared to make the sacrifices required at that level.
He wouldn’t have liked that approach off the grass, that is of course the Kilkenny way and he will have learned much playing under Cody all those years. There would be no place for egos or bad influences around the place and it was very clear from the Dublin performance this was a team pulling in the same direction. That doesn’t happen by accident.
Changing the culture of anything be it in the workplace or sport isn’t always easy and often takes time as
you will always meet resistance and a degree of negativity.
However, the advantage Brennan has over lesser mortals is that he immediately brings respect given his achievements as a player. That respect alone gets him the attention of the players because to believe in the vision or message it is essential to believe in the leader themselves.
Brennan has clearly got the players believing in him and as a consequence and probably more importantly believing in themselves.
It is important to highlight, as I have before in this column that great players don’t always make great managers, but Brennan comes across as intelligent, articulate and easy to like.
He also understands what makes players tick in order to get the best out of them. His decision to allow them a few pints after their McDonagh victory, just a week before the Dublin game would have sports scientists choking on their protein shakes but he obviously understood the importance of players enjoying the moment and letting off a bit of steam. He also trusted them enough to give them that freedom which is all part of the culture he is trying to embed in order to get the best out of the group.
The next step for them may be a step too far at this stage in their development.
This will be their third championship game on the trot, this time in the wide open and unforgiving spaces of Croke Park against a Tipperary team who set the early championship pace and will be back refreshed and out to prove a point following their dismantling by Limerick in the Munster final.
Whatever the result and none of us really expect another shock, Brennan and Laois have taken a massive step
forward and proved that with the right manager, the right culture and a talented group of players willing to test themselves to a different standard than normal it is possible to compete at a higher level.
I sincerely hope they get back down to earth and don’t get blinded by the lights of Croker.
Such results are great for the championship but If they fail to perform this weekend, I am going to blame the drink!!