This Saturday, the hurlers of Offaly and Laois will clash in Croke Park with silverware on the line.

While it is the second-tier Joe McDonagh Cup, it’s not so fanciful to think that the midlands neighbours would take to the sacred sward, battling for a major honour. Back in 1985, the counties met in the Leinster senior hurling final, with goals swaying the issue for Offaly, a 5-15 to 0-17 triumph shooting them towards a second All-Ireland.

Four years previously, they had become the first new name on the Liam MacCarthy Cup since Waterford in 1948. During that campaign, their narrowest margin of victory was the single point they had to spare against Laois in the Leinster semi-final, 3-20 to 6-10 the final score.

Cheddar’s view

Séamus ‘Cheddar’ Plunkett was a member of the Laois squad during that era. He knows they were close to a real breakthrough – the O’Moore County also reached the open-draw Centenary Cup final in 1984, losing to Cork after beating Limerick, Tipperary and Galway – but, rather than looking back, he is keen to do what he can to expand hurling’s reach.

“There were four Leinster finals in a row and then a final in 1985,” he says, “with only ever a few points in it.

“There was great rivalry between the counties at the time and it was the best team Laois had since they got to the All-Ireland final in 1949.

“If you were being realistic about it, would we have gone on to win an All-Ireland, like Offaly did? Maybe so, but I think that team was probably short a couple of quality players. You bring it around full circle and now Laois – and most of the other McDonagh teams – are probably eight or nine players short of being able to step up to the top level in hurling now. It has moved on so much, in terms of skill and tactics.

“The main issue is, first of all, growing the game in these counties, improve the quality and the numbers playing and coaching.”

Séamus ‘Cheddar’ Plunkett in 2020, when he was manager of Kilkenny side James Stephens. \Harry Murphy Sportsfile

Plunkett has had three stints as the Laois manager and this year he is involved with Kilkenny club side St Martin’s. He draws a comparison with the concentration of quality in hurling to that of rugby union, where there is a big drop-off beyond the very top tier.

“You look on social media and you see people saying the problems are the handpass or guys over-carrying,” he says.

“The bigger problem is that you have, realistically, eight or nine counties contesting the All-Ireland championship.

“It’s time somebody decided they’re going to do something about it – or they’re not going to do something about it and let people know and not have them with dreams and aspirations of trying to do something when, realistically, it’s just not on.

“I’ve been watching hurling for a long time and I can say, without fear of contradiction, that the current Antrim team is the best they’ve had since they were in the All-Ireland in 1989.

“The current Carlow team is, without doubt, the best they’ve had since the 1960s, when they were strong. Offaly have their best up-and-coming young team since the days when they were winning All-Irelands.

“The raw materials are there and you look at the progress Offaly have made since Michael Duignan became chairperson. It’s not that it can’t be done but you have to have the right people and the right plans and the right support behind them.”

As one of Brian Cody’s trusted lieutenants during his time in charge of Kilkenny, Martin Fogarty has seen the pinnacle of the game. Equally, a stint as national hurling development manager from 2016-21 – a role unfilled since he stepped down – means he is more than qualified to speak about the have-nots, too.


While both Offaly and Laois will progress to the preliminary quarter-final stage of this year’s All-Ireland, only the winners will be in the 2025 Leinster championship.

Fogarty feels that such elitism is a major barrier to progress.

“I’d love to see these counties in the Leinster championship all the time and not having to qualify,” he says.

“You look at a Leinster championship with Galway and Antrim in it and you’d say why can’t Carlow or Laois or Offaly or Westmeath be in it if they want to be?

“You don’t want to throw a team in somewhere they don’t want to be, but maybe you could have a situation where the Joe McDonagh is played later and the teams that don’t advance from the provincial championship could play in that, similar to how it is with the Tailteann Cup in football.”

While Kilkenny is contesting the Leinster final against Dublin after the McDonagh Cup final, they drew this year with Carlow. Unfortunately for the Dolmen County, it was the only point they claimed in the Leinster championship and so they must re-engage with the McDonagh Cup bearpit.

“You take Carlow,” Fogarty says, “after doing so well and then having to go back down and start again.

“Carlow are essentially working from six clubs. If you told Cork or Kilkenny or Limerick they could only pick from six clubs, they wouldn’t be seeing Liam MacCarthy too often.

“What could they do if they had 10 or 12 clubs? You grow the game by increasing the numbers of clubs in counties like that.”

The McDonagh Cup winners will face Cork next Saturday week while the losers will face Wexford. Both will be huge underdogs – since this format was introduced, Laois’s win over Dublin in 2019 stands alone in terms of wins for McDonagh finalists – but Fogarty is glad that they will have the opportunity, even it’s a challenging one.

“If you win, you’re celebrating and to be ready in a week is very difficult,” he says, “but if you lose, it’s tougher.

“I suppose, to be fair, if you give a lad a choice – do you want to be in the MacCarthy Cup next week or next year? – you know what they’ll go for.

“To get a crack at the best is always worthwhile. Even at club level, you learn more by playing better teams, there’s no doubting that.”

Read more

Hurling championship has kept us enthralled - football has a hard act to follow