Kildare hurling manager Joe Quaid said at the end of the 2016 hurling season that if his side were not promoted to the Walsh Cup in 2017 then they would not be playing a pre season competition in 2017. The Lilywhites had enjoyed a comfortable voyage through the Kehoe Cup -the second tier competition- and ended up recording a facile win over Maynooth University in the final.
It was poor preparation for the league campaign in which they would be competing against the likes of Westmeath, Antrim and Meath in Division 2A, and it took a win over Derry on the last day of the competition to stave off the threat of relegation.
The Walsh Cup provides a better platform, but the nine-point defeat to IT Carlow on Sunday afternoon gave a taste of the level at which the county are now competing at. Despite the loss, Quaid was happy with his players performance and the fact that they are playing alongside top tier teams.
"That match today was worth all the Kehoe Cup matches bundled into one," began Quaid.
"I thought the boys did exactly what we wanted them to do, but look, small mistakes cost us. At this level, against that quality we were playing against, they are a serious outfit. They overran us -any mistakes we made they punished us- but look, at the end of the day I asked for pride in the jersey and hard work from our lads, and I think I got it in spades from everybody."
"That's what we wanted out of the game. We could have dropped the heads and been beaten by 25 points, but the lads stuck at it and we got back to nine points in the finish. The scoreline probably flatters us because they hit a lot of wides, but as I said to our lads, they didn't hit any wides standing on their own. They were under pressure from our lads."
"There was one thing I asked from our lads this year and that's to be the hardest working team in our division and in the Christy Ring. Look, obviously with Gerry Keegan gone and others fellas not able to commit and that we might not have the quality, but by God we've a better bond and a better heart than we had last year and we need that to replace them guys."
There are obvious problems in Kildare hurling however, and they are not new ones. The Limerick native is still struggling to get some of the county's best players back in the white jersey, and the reasoning behind some players' decisions to opt out of the county panel is of huge frustration to the manager as he dives into his second year at the helm.
"We've trawled the county. Every three-legged dog has been asked to come in that is up to the standard, but the one thing we have is a bunch of lads in here at the moment that want to be here and are willing to give absolutely everything for Kildare," he said.
"It's very hard on the core guys that are here all the time when they're seeing the change, the change, the change and the pattern going; it's very hard to get consistency. To be fair, you have Peter Moran there and Chris Bonus in there today and I thought they set the tone for the game. Their workrate and their passion was unbelievable and that rubs off on other fellas. When you have guys coming in like that it's a good thing."
It as led Quaid down the road of bringing in players from outside the county, something he refused to do last year and something he really did not want to do this year either.
"It's something I didn't want to do last year. It's something I didn't want to do this year. It's something I think I shouldn't have to do, but we have to do it. The rules are there and we'll use them, and the one thing is that no Kildare players are losing out."
Tipperary native Dinny Stapelton is one of the players that will be playing for Kildare this year, as Quaid confirmed that the Sean Treacy's clubman will join the Lilywhite cause once again after lining out for the county in 2015. Quizzed upon why players aren't committing to Kildare this year, an exasperated Quaid bemoaned the fact that many of the hurlers he has called are simply not bothered.
Dinny Stapelton in action for Kildare in the 2015 Christy Ring Cup.
"I'm not going to go through it, but there's fellas that just couldn't be bothered, some of them have work commitments. Mark Grace -to be fair to him- has work commitments, we've lost Johnny[Byrne] to the football. He found it difficult to do both last year which is quite understandable. There's other lads and they just want to do other things," he remarked.
"My days of begging lads to come and play for Kildare are over. I've had more guys from outside the county coming and asking to play with Kildare than players from Kildare calling.
"Anyone that's coming in, I've told them that they have to fight for their place. There's people in here that want that jersey as bad as they do, and if they fight for it and they're good enough they'll get it. If not, they'll sit on the bench like everyone else."
"At the moment, I suppose coming from a traditional hurling county, when you're ringing someone asking them if they want to play and they say 'no, I couldn't be bothered', it's very frustrating and very hard to understand. That's what it is, and we have the players that we have and we'll work with them. There's no point worrying about the guys that aren't there."
So what's the aim for the year? It's more or less the same as 2016; stay in Division 2A, get some momentum in the Christy Ring Cup and see where that takes the team.
"As of last year the single most important thing for Kildare hurling is that we stay up, and that we maybe move up a notch in Division 2A. It's going to be tough, it's a bloody good division," he concluded.
Up next for the hurlers is a difficult away assignment against Christy Ring Cup champions Meath in Navan, and Quaid will be hoping for a better outcome against a team that they competed well against last year.
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