TAKING TO THE field in Croke Park last Sunday week was a milestone for Matthew Whelan.

He had been a member of a Laois minor football squad that won the Leinster title there in 2005 but had carved a senior sporting identity as a hurler.

Trips up to Dublin to GAA headquarters had been missing from his schedule, the 31-year-old plying his trade away from the hurling limelight.

So that Joe McDonagh Cup final eight days ago was an occasion of personal significance, his first outing there in Laois senior colours.

It was his 150th appearance for the Laois senior team, a reflection of his longevity in hits 13th season soldiering for the county cause.

It was a triumphant one, silverware brought home with them to the Midlands. Then came Sunday, that seismic success against Dublin in Portlaoise.

Next Sunday presents a return to Croke Park, the challenge and the opposition more considerable as they journey deeper into the summer with Tipperary in the opposite corner.

“I think it’s the best moment,” admitted Whelan when asked to assess the feat of defeating Dublin.

“I still feel young. I’m not one for stats or anything, I just want to keep going as long as I can. I’m enjoying the moment now.”

“Look beating a top tier team that’s an All-Ireland contender in my mind, it’s a special one. Beating Offaly a couple of years ago comes to mind as well, special moments.

“I suppose in previous performances over the last decade or so, we had our chances and we had the lead in different games against Galway and Limerick, let it slip in the second half for one reason or another but in fairness the forwards stuck with it, they worked very hard.

“We’re a proud and traditional hurling county and we feel we kind of a little bit forgotten about. Now we can get behind a team and we can be proud and stick our chests out. We can go back up to Croke Park again. I suppose it all happened getting to the Joe McDonagh final, a huge Laois crowd went up. The hurling is on a wave of momentum in the county now and long may it last.”

Laois player Ryan Mullaney celebrates after Sunday’s victory over Dublin.

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The odds may have seemed stacked against Laois given Dublin’s form after landing a blow against Galway a few weeks ago and the packed schedule facing Eddie Brennan’s side of late.

Those circumstances may have looked unenviable from the outside but in the inner sanctum of Laois hurling, no one was approaching Sunday’s challenge in that fashion.

“I just think that no one gave us a chance, only the players that were in the circle and the management. I think that was all that really truly believed we could pull this off.

“It was tough going but we didn’t want to use it as a crutch because you’re only judged on your last performance. The county was on a high last week. What was the use in going out today and losing by 15 points? So the onus was on us to get ourselves completely right for it and build ourselves up again. It worked out for us.

“In fairness to the management and the boys, we set our target and drove through it. Beating Dublin was a huge achievement for us. We have to gladly go through that again now next week for Tipperary.”

And so they move onto the quarter-final stage. Waterford, Clare, Galway and Dublin are some of the elite teams watching on as the hurling fare enters a critical juncture in 2019.

Laois are immersed in the heart of it, relishing the opportunity to square off against Liam Sheedy’s team of celebrated All-Ireland winners.

“We’re up against serious opposition, they were in a Munster final and they’ve All-Ireland ambitions,” said Whelan.

“It’s in Croke Park and the stakes are high. That’s the biggest stage of them all, it’s the biggest stage that any of us have played in. It’s up to us to be adjusted and be adapted and ready to go because it’ll come thick and fast.

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“A quick turnaround, only another week again but I suppose we’ve proven we can turn around in a short space of time so we’ll look forward to the challenge.”

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