ON Saturday, Carlow and Kildare, get their Allianz Hurling League Division 2A campaign off to a start when the two sides meet at Netwatch Cullen Park.
The counties are at slightly different stages of their development. After the highs of Christy Ring and Joe McDonagh Cup victories in the last decade, Carlow are trying to rebuild.
On the other hand, Kildare are coming and no doubt Naas winning an All-Ireland intermediate club title has helped lift the game across the county. In an earlier Kehoe Cup encounter, the Lily Whites were too good for Carlow but Barrowside manager, Tom Mullally, says nothing can be read into that result.
“That day in the Kehoe Cup, Kildare had four or five games played and we had none. Fair is fair. Anyone looking at the result on the scoreboard is naïve,” suggested Mullally.
Ironically, the Kilkenny man was manager of Naas when they won the All-Ireland title. Yet he says, his familiarity with Kildare hurling is not necessarily a benefit for Carlow.
“I don’t know if it will or not. Sometimes that can complicate things. It is grand to know the opposition but that is as far as it goes,” the Carlow manager reasoned. He did acknowledge Carlow face a huge challenge.
“Kildare are a team in form. There is no question about that. They have a huge pick and that will be reflected in the current squad that is coming through. They are putting in the work too and that is reflected in their results. We hope that, with our group, we can get there too.”
Diarmuid Byrne will be out on Saturday as he has a family wedding. John Michael Nolan has a long-term injury while Marty Kavanagh is unavailable for selection at the moment. Mullally says, after the earlier games, the season is really only starting now.
He hinted that if Carlow were not to win the league but progressed in the Joe McDonagh Cup then the season could be considered a success.
“We have to concentrate what we can get from the league. The Kehoe Cup has served us well in trying to build a panel. We have had a few injuries which has held back our development. Hopefully, in the course of the league with the ups and downs, we will be in a position to attack the Joe McDonagh. That would be an excellent position for us to be in,” he said.
For one particular Carlow player, it has been a strange few months. A senior football championship winner with Palatine but then Conor Lawlor is back in the hurling squad. He will forever be remember in Carlow football circles for that wonderful goal against Kildare in the 2018 Leinster football championship. Yet here he is in a Carlow hurling jersey where he has been for a number of years now.
“I have had about four managers in hurling and four managers in football. Between the two I am around 12 seasons swopping between the two,” he explained.
“I tried dual one year when John Meyler and Anthony Rainbow were in Carlow. In fairness, Meyler allowed me to train football if I had a football game and hurling when there was a game at the weekend. Rainbow would have been wondering why I was playing hurling. It is a great honour to be wanted by both and to be able to play both,” agreed Conor.
He says he enjoys working with Carlow senior hurling manager, Tom Mullally who, he feels, takes a democratic approach when working within the squad.
“Any good manager nowadays has a team around him. In the time I have known Tom, he has a team around him. He says what he has to say and then allows others to say what they want to say. In fairness he seems to know when he has to step up and when he needs to step aside for a few minutes.”
Last year, Carlow beat Offaly in the Joe McDonagh Cup but were dumped out of the competition because Kerry beat Antrim. Lawlor says Carlow must avoid a similar situation this year.
“You want to stay in with a chance of winning the league and you don’t want to be like last year in the Joe McDonagh when we beat Offaly. What we are aiming for this year is to keep our own destiny in our own hands. You want to be able to beat someone like Offaly and know that if we win, we go through.”
ALLIANZ HURLING LEAGUE DIVISION 2A OPENING ROUND FIXTURES
Saturday 4 February
Carlow v Kildare, Netwatch Cullen Park, 2pm
Derry v Kerry, Celtic Park, 2pm
Sunday 5 February
Down v Offaly, Ballycran, 2pm
By Kieran Murphy