Laois kept alive their hopes of an NHL Division 2 final berth on Saturday afternoon, as they ground out a hard earned four point win over Antrim in O’Moore Park.
Coming into the game on the back of the capitulation against Carlow two weeks earlier, it was an impressive performance from a side which was under pressure to get a result. Another defeat here and their hopes of a qualifying from Division 2 were all but gone, and they stuck to the task well to eventually see off a Neil McManus inspired Antrim.
This victory isn’t a total redemption either, and there is plenty of work still to be done. The starting three players in the full-forward line managed just one point between them, that coming from John Brophy in the second half when he moved further out the field.
It wasn’t all their fault either, as the ball into them was often delivered aimlessly or favouring the defender rather than the Laois men. Nonetheless, an improved effort from everyone will be needed for the next outing, a daunting trip to play table-toppers Limerick this Saturday night.
On the plus side, the work rate was much improved, and there were some very encouraging performances also. Chris Murray, making his first league start for Laois, was very impressive, hitting four points from play and working hard around the half forward line.
James Walsh showed no ill-effects from his recent knee injury either, and he continues to form a good partnership with Sean Bourke, both of them chipping in with points over the course of the game.
Laois made an impressive start to the game too, and began the game like a team with something to prove. Chris Murray took a little over a minute to open his account for the year, as Willie Hyland set him up for the game’s opening score.
Matthew Whelan added a point from a 65 a couple of minutes later, and buoyed by that good start, Laois pressed further ahead with two points from Hyland. Antrim were getting enough possession in the opening stages but could do little constructive with it, and they had registered five wides and no scores in the first ten minutes.
While they laboured in front of goal Laois could do little wrong at the other end, and two excellent points from Sean Bourke and Brian Dunne stretched the lead out six with 11 minutes gone.
Antrim finally sprung into life after that thanks to Neil McManus, who would go on to be a constant thorn in Laois’ side, as he hit three points in as many minutes to halve the deficit.
Chris Murray and Willie Hyland responded for Laois, but McManus was starting to find his range for Antrim, and he pointed two frees either side of a Willie Hyland effort to keep Antrim in the hunt. Hyland again found the target for Laois, but the remainder of the half belonged to the visitors as McManus kept finding the target to see the teams’ level at 0-10 apiece at the break.
It was a disappointing half-time scoreline given that Laois had lead by six points at one stage, but they were also lucky not to have gone in behind. They owed much of that to the determination of James Walsh, who denied Karl Stewart a goal scoring opportunity with a wonderful hook before then diving on the loose ball and clearing it to safety. It was that kind of drive and determination which was so sorely lacking against Carlow.
When the second half got underway it was Laois who were again quickest out of the traps, with Willie Hyland’s three pointed frees drawing just one response from Antrim, with Neil McManus almost inevitably the scorer.
That early glut of frees for Laois allowed them to hold the upper hand for the second half, as Antrim could never fully bridge the gap between the teams. Twice they reduced the deficit to a single point, but each time Laois quelled any potential uprisings by pulling clear once again.
Despite holding the lead, Laois were never really comfortable as Antrim remained within striking distance for the rest of the game. Points from Chris Murray, Brian Dunne and Neil Foyle kept the scoreboard ticking over, but it wasn’t until Foyle pointed a free in the final minute of normal time to open up a four point gap that Laois could really be sure of the win.
The challenges don’t get any easier from here on in, as Limerick now await in the Gaelic Grounds this Saturday night. While it’s pleasing to be going into that game on the back of a win, and Laois will need a vast improvement if they are to avoid a second defeat of the campaign. If they have learned enough from the last two games then they can certainly go down looking for a win, but it remains to be seen which Laois team will show up on Saturday.
SCORERS - Laois: Willie Hyland 0-8 (seven frees), Chris Murray 0-4, Brian Dunne, Neil Foyle (one free) 0-2 each, Matthew Whelan (65), James Walsh, Sean Bourke, John Brophy 0-1 each; Antrim: Neil McManus 0-13 (nine frees, one 65), Karl Stewart, Simon McCrory, Darren Hamill 0-1 each
LAOIS: Paddy Mullaney; John A Delaney, Brian Campion, Brian Stapleton; Joe Fitzpatrick, Matthew Whelan, Brian Galvin; James Walsh, Sean Bourke; Brian Dunne, Willie Hyland, Chris Murray; John Purcell, Tommy Fitzgerald, John Brophy. Subs:
ANTRIM: Christopher O’Connell; Neil McAuley, Cormac Donnelly, Aaron Graffin; Kevin McKeague, Michael Herron, Johnny Campbell; Karl Stewart, Colm McFall; Neil McManus, Eddie McCloskey, Simon McCrory; Darren Hammill, Conor Carson, Liam Kearns. Subs
Referee: Colm Lyons (Cork)