Despite conceding three goals over the hour and not finding the back of the net themselves, the Laois minor hurlers advanced to the Leinster semi-final with a deserved three point win over Offaly in Tullamore on Saturday.
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Pat Critchley’s side scored 13 points in each half, including six unanswered in the last six minutes, to seal the victory. The game was right in the balance up to that point as Offaly desperately defended the lead they had built up in the first-half with the advantage of the strong wind but Laois showed great composure and self belief to keep the scoreboard ticking over with points.
Had it not been for the goals, two of which were very preventable, Laois would have won this game by considerably more and it would not have flattered them as they were much the better side both technically and tactically.
Mark Kavanagh was the scorer in chief with 14 points while all the starting forwards got on the score-sheet over the course of the game.
At the other end, the Laois defence was outstanding in the second-half restricting Offaly to 1-2 with the goal after 37 minutes coming completely against the run of play. They won all the individual battles and kept a constant supply of accurate ball going into their forwards. Even with the wind, they did not resort to launching in aimless high balls to their full-forward line. As they did when they were facing into the elements, they built from the back, picking out the player in space with intelligent passes creating scoring opportunities that led to their impressive haul of 26 points.
Playing into the strong wind in O’Connor Park, Laois opened an early two point lead with Mark Kavanagh and Robbie Phelan finding the target. After a point from Eoghan Cahill from a free, Kevin Bergin found the target to leave Laois two ahead with just four minutes elapsed.
The next five minutes however was all Offaly as they jumped from two behind to seven ahead. Points from Cahill and Cillian Kiely levelled the scores before Aidan Corby edged Laois back in front. Cahill and Oisin Kelly pointed to put Offaly in front for the first time before two goals in a minute rocked Laois.
The first came from a 21 metre free when the two time All Ireland U-16 Champion long puck champion Killian Kiely drilled the ball to the roof of the net and that was followed less than a minute by the second from Eoghan Cahill who pounced on a mistake in the Laois defence.
Laois however maintained their composure and two points for Mark Kavanagh reduced the gap but Offaly replied with two of their own including one spectacular effort from Cillian Kiely from a side-line from 45 metres out.
Two points from Aaron Dunphy reduced the gap to five although Offaly had a golden chance for a third goal but with space in front of him, Oisin Kelly chose to shoot from 21 metres out and his weak effort was easily saved by Paul Simms.
In the last ten minutes of the half, Laois added five further points against the wind with four coming from Mark Kavanagh and one from Aidan Corby while Offaly put over five of their own leaving them 2-12 to 0-13 ahead at the break.
Laois came out strongly with the wind at their backs with points from Robbie Phelan (2) and Aidan Corby who put over a super score from wide on the right.
Offaly were struggling to get out of their half but against the run of play, the ball broke for them close to the Laois goal and Eoghan Cahill applied the finish to restore their five point lead.
Laois’ accuracy dropped off after Offaly’s goal as they hit six wides in a short period but they did cut the gap with scores from a Mark Kavanagh free and one from Robbie Phelan.
Two further points from Kavanagh were cancelled out by two Cillian Kiely frees which left Offaly still three points to the good entering the last six minutes.
However in the final minutes, the new found confidence in Laois hurling came to the fore while Offaly hurling’s current brittleness again reared it’s head. Two points from Mark Kavanagh reduced the gap to one before Robbie Phelan levelled matters after he won possession with an excellent block down.
With the game ticking into four minutes of injury-time, Kavanagh put Laois in front for the first time since the seventh minute. The momentum was firmly with Pat Critchley’s side and further points from Kavanagh and Andrew Mortimer saw them over the line and into the Leinster semi-final.
Scorers: Offaly: Eoghan Cahill 2-4 (0-2f); Cillian Kiely 1-6 (0-4f, 0-1 sl); James Kilmartin 0-2; Oisin Kelly 0-1; Padraic Guinan 0-1. Laois: Mark Kavanagh 0-14 (0-8f); Robbie Phelan 0-5; Aidan Corby 0-3; Aaron Dunphy 0-2; Andrew Mortimer 0-1; Kevin Bergin 0-1
Offaly: Oisin Mahon; Niall Duffy, Craig Taylor, Paddy Delaney; Darren Healy, Danny Spain, Donal Mahon; Cillian Kiely, Padraic Guinan; Ciaran Cleary, Oisin Kelly, Ronan Hughes; Jordan Fogarty, James Kilmartin, Eoghan Cahill. Subs: Conor Molloy for Darren Healy (41mins), Declan Buckley for Ronan Hughes (51mins), Eoin Carroll for Danny Spain (60mins), William Malone for Oisin Mahon (56mins); Shane Healy for Eoghan Cahill (64mins)
Laois: Paul Simms (Ballinakill); Donnacha Hartnett (Mountmellick), Ryan Mullaney (Castletown-Slieve Bloom), Evan Cuddy (Castletown-Slieve Bloom); Conor Phelan (Castletown-Slieve Bloom), Liam O’Connell (Rathdowney/Errill), Lee Cleere (Clough Ballacolla); John Lennon (Rosenallis), Sean Downey (Ballinakill); Robbie Phelan (Clough Ballacolla), Kevin Bergin (Clonad), Aidan Corby (Clough Ballacolla); Mark Kavanagh (Rathdowney/Errill), Aaron Dunphy (Borris/Ossory/Kilcotton), Andrew Mortimer (Camross). Subs: Eoin Fitzpatrick (Borris/Kilcotton) for Sean Downey (37mins), Rory McEvoy (St Lazarien’s Abbeyleix) for Aaron Dunphy (51mins), Richie Saunders (The Harps) for Ryan Mullaney (57mins)
Referee: Michael O’Sullivan (Kilkenny)