Real test of character for Offaly

 

OFFALY face a real test of character in the National Hurling League in front of what will be a particularly circumspect home crowd in Birr on Sunday.

The acid test for the 1994 AllIreland champions has more to do with a recent morale shattering experience than the potential threat of opponents like Kerry.

It will be the first outing for the side since what is now being hailed in the county as "freak Sunday", the day that they failed to score from play while suffering a 1-28 to 1-1 defeat at the hands of Galway in Ballinasloe.

All Ireland captain Johnny Pilkington regards it as a weird experience. "We met and talked about it on the following Tuesday night and nobody could really put their finger of what happened. Some of us said that it was a real fluke and everything Galway touched went over the bar, which is true. If you were spectating or playing in that game you still could not come up with an answer, it was an unusual one.

"We played Wexford in the Walsh Cup a week before and played similarly but at least we scored."

Pilkington feels that the team's confidence has not been severely affected by the setback . "As far as confidence goes, the year of 94 has given us a level of confidence that we will not lose easily," he said.

County footballer John Ryan is included in Sunday's team affected by injuries to Joe Errity and Mick Duignan. Ryan comes in for Michael Rigney at wing back. Joe and Bill Dooley return to a side that shows three changes in personnel from that which went down to Galway.

A surprise is the inclusion of Johnny Dooley on the subs bench. The sharp shooter, an obvious missing link against Galway, was not expected to return until April at the earliest but his knee injury is responding well to treatment.

"Our immediate aim now is to avoid relegation and our main aim is the championship," said Pilkington. With an eye to the championship and a meeting with Lao is, he added: "The Laois players did very well for Leinster against Connacht last Sunday, they are in top form and, to be honest, that is our main concern at the moment."

He does not underestimate the Kerry challenge for Sunday's game. "We were held to a draw by Kerry in a Division Two 1994 match in Birr".

Kerry make three changes for the Birr visit. Ian Brick, Padraig Teahan and Mike Foley are drafted into the team with Phillip Healy, Pat O'Connell and John Foley being relegated to the subs bench. There are also a number of positional changes in defence and attack. Maurice McCarthy moves from corner back to centre half back and Mike Foley leads the attack with Tony Maunsell moving to full forward.

Galway manager Matt Murphy. expresses similar caution about, his side's crucial clash with Waterford in Dungarvan. "Remember we failed to put up a single score against them in the first half of the quarter final last. year."

Joe Cooney had recovered from the shoulder injury sustained in the All Ireland club semi finals and is sited at full forward in place of Ollie Fahy, who got in against Offaly when Cooney failed a fitness test.

In all Murphy makes two changes from the side that hammered Offaly for this, the penultimate match, before meeting Kerry in the final engagement of the round robin series. Brian Feeney, an under 21 star in the 1991 final, returns to full back in place of Paul Cooney.

Murphy still has to plan without the services of the two Kellys, Peter and Pauric. Sean Treacy is also nursing an injury and Conor Donovan damaged a hamstring against Offaly.