By Damian Dolan
Shane Lawless says London’s hurlers have moved on from their national league relegation, and go into their Christy Ring Cup opener with Meath in confident mood.
Shane Kelly’s Exiles travel to Navan on Sunday (1pm), before entertaining Roscommon and Kildare at Ruislip.
Meath will be the team’s first competitive run out since defeat to Mayo at McGovern Park in March ended the Exiles’ six-year stint in Division 2A.
“We’ve regrouped and things have improved. We still feel we’re capable of reaching the [Christy Ring] final, if we can produce the performances we need,” Lawless told the Irish World.
“It just didn’t happen for us that day [vs Mayo]. We got caught for a few scores and didn’t put in the performance we should have.”
He added: “The league didn’t go as well as we’d hoped. With the change in the panel from last year, it took time for us to click together. But I think it’s come now.”
Lawless credits challenge matches against Wicklow in Dublin three weeks ago, and Warwickshire prior to that, with helping to heal any lingering wounds from the league.
“The games against Wicklow and Warwickshire have really helped, because it’s games that’s going to improve us,” said Lawless, who made his debut for London in 2017 and was part of the side which lost to Kildare in last year’s Christy Ring final at Croke Park.
“Wicklow was a much better team performance, and everyone seemed to hit top form against Warwickshire. Some lads played very well.
“I’d be hopeful we’ll hit the right tempo going into Meath. We were close to them in the league, so I imagine it will be another tight one.”
Just six points separated the sides in their league meeting in Trim earlier this year. A game dictated by a strong wind saw the Royal County lead by 14 points at the break, and London’s second half fightback fall short.
Meath also came out on top in the sides’ 2018 league meeting at McGovern Park (by 10 points). When the sides last met in the championship in 2016, Meath won 2-17 to 1-16 in Ruislip.
Lawless, though, believes it’s a “good challenge” for London to get first up and sees no reason why the Exiles can’t get a result in Navan.
“We’re closely matched and I’d be confident that we’d be able to take them. We’ve that bit more training done and we’ve gotten stronger [since the league],” said Lawless, who won a senior London county title with St Gabriel’s last year.
“If things go right on the day, I don’t see any reason why we can’t match them.”
But they’ll have to do it without Conor Allis, Conor Hickey and Garrett Lenihan, who have all left the panel for various reasons since the Mayo game.
Lawless missed the Mayo match having started the Exiles’ previous four league games. He believes a decision here or there in London’s favour, and they could easily have been reflecting on a very different campaign.
Westmeath and Kerry handed out firm beatings, but the games with Meath (six-point loss), Antrim (two points) and Mayo (three points) were far closer.
For Lawless, London’s best performance came in the first half against Antrim, but the Exiles weren’t able to “close it out”.
“A couple of decisions against Meath, Antrim and Mayo and we could have come out with the result,” he said.
Lawless sees holders Kildare as London’s toughest challenge in Round 3. They finished third in Div 2B.
Meath were relegated from the Joe McDonagh last year without a win to their name, and finished fourth in Div 2A. Roscommon hurled in the Christy Ring last year and won Div 2A this year.
A tough group, arguably the tougher of the two groups, but Lawless expects London to be “there or thereabouts”.
“We should be good enough to get a result against Roscommon. Kildare will be big test, but the fact that we’re playing in Ruislip will be a big advantage to us,” said Lawless.
“If we can get two wins (versus Meath and Roscommon) we’ll have good momentum going into that game. But for the moment, we’re totally focused on Meath.”
As London know only too well, points difference could also play a part. It cost Down a place in the semi-finals last year, with London and Derry pipping them on the finishing line in dramatic fashion.
London condemned Kildare to the drop the last time the sides met at McGovern Park in 2018, and carried the momentum of that victory into the championship.
They have no such springboard this time around, but Lawless is unconcerned that the Exiles go into the championship without a competitive win to their name in 2019.
“The league was disappointing, but we’ve regrouped since then and we’ve got a bit of momentum building now,” he said.
“If we can pull out a result against Meath we can only improve from there. We’re building.
“We wouldn’t underestimate Meath, but we’ve good enough hurlers and a good enough panel to be able to get a result.
“It’s going to be a tough one. It’s a doubleheader with the football, so Meath will have a very strong following in Navan. But as long as we stay focused, I think we can.”