Offaly wade into Leinster semi-finals

WHAT would it have taken to have had this Leinster senior hurling quarter -final called off yesterday?

"I’m involved in hurling all my life; I’ve never seen a day like that," said Offaly manager John McIntyre. "What makes it worse — it’s May!"

All morning the rain had bucketed down in Portlaoise, all through the first match (Westmeath/Dublin) it had continued, just after the restart of this game it had come down in such torrents that for the near-5,000 fans in the covered stand, with the gutter overflowing, it was like watching hurling through the Niagara Falls.

"I’m sure it wasn’t pretty," continued McIntyre, "but it was probably prettier than those Finnish Daniel O’Donnell lookalikes who won the Eurovision last night!"

Game over, game won, big Mac could afford to joke, but if any of his players had been seriously injured, as could have happened in those atrocious conditions, or even if his hotly -fancied side had lost in what was potentially a lottery, it would have been no laughing matter.

Happily, however, no-one was injured, and the better team, McIntyre’s team, did win.

"The conditions were tailor-made for an upset, but we went about our business professionally. Obviously it wasn’t a complete performance but you can’t judge on those conditions, it was so bad," he said.

"The pitch was scarcely playable. When you see Pearse Stadium falling by the wayside — a pitch on which there were eight games played last weekend — then two hurling games going ahead here in these conditions? Maybe there was a safety risk element in it; I was surprised they went ahead, but I’ll take it now."

He will have learned nothing from this match, the Offaly manager, other than perhaps that in Leinster, getting the games played is paramount, and damn the consequences.

Playing with the wind and rain at their backs, Offaly had a good first half, leading 2-7 to 0-4 at the break.

Most of the scoring damage was done by their full-forward line of Brian Carroll/Joe Bergin/Aidan Hanrahan, with 2-5 of that total (1-1 apiece for Hanrahan and Bergin), but Offaly were dominant throughout the park and that upset mentioned by McIntyre was never really on the cards.

The returning Brian Mullins was ultra-sound in goal, 19-year-old Paul Cleary anchored a rock-solid full-back line, as did Rory Hanniffy in the half-row.

So dominant was that Offaly defence in fact, that they conceded just one point between them in that opening 35 minutes, corner-forward Sean Lowry finally managing to slip David Franks in the 29th minute (whatever McIntyre said to them at the break, it worked, because they closed up shop completely thereafter).

In midfield Gary Hanniffy was the outstanding performer, with Ger Oakley working like a Trojan, and these two completely outplayed James Young and Joe Phelan.

For Laois, only Young was really figuring, and that was from placed balls.

They did their best, but as seen throughout the league, that best is limited.

In the second half, with conditions worsening by the minute, they did at least manage a semblance of respectability, almost matching Offaly on the scoreboard (0-5 added for Offaly, 0-4 for Laois, with 17-year-old substitute Zane Keenan impressing with a fine strike). Really, however, it was over at half-time.

A win for Offaly then, on to a meeting with Wexford in the Leinster semi -final in a few weeks.

Encouraging for the faithful was the business-like performance by the team under such adverse conditions, encouraging also the return of long-serving Brian Whelehan, a 64th-minute sub, albeit as a wing-forward.

As the manager said, however, nothing really to be learned from this game. "I thought our lads were professional, we didn’t even know up to half an hour before throw-in whether or not the game was going ahead, which wasn’t ideal.

"It wasn’t my call, but there’s no point kicking up a fuss. There are no crutches for Offaly this year, whatever cards are dealt, we’re going to play them. There has been this culture in Offaly, certainly last year, of ‘this was to blame, that was to blame, we didn’t get this, we didn’t to that’; that’s over, lads.

"We’ll go out, play the matches, give it our best shot. We’ll have to improve a lot before we play Wexford in the Leinster semi-final, but at least we’re there. Fair play to the lads, they’re a good bunch, put up with a lot of criticism over the last 12 months and it’s hard to bounce back from that, but we’re trying, that’s all we can do, we’re giving it our best shot.

"Today is a step in the right direction, we’re playing Wexford; the critics will say it’s a clash between the eighth and the ninth-best teams in the championship.

"After that game is over, we’re hoping to be the eighth-best team in the championship and that’s it — small steps."

Scorers: Offaly: B Carroll 0-5 (0-4 frees); J Bergin 1-1; A Hanrahan 1-1; G Hanniffy, M O’Hara, B Murphy, D Hayden, A Egan, 0-1 each. Laois: J Young 0-4 (0-4 frees); S Lowry, J Phelan, D Cuddy, Z Keenan, 0-1 each.

OFFALY: B Mullins; B Teehan, P Cleary, D Franks; K Brady, R Hanniffy, D Tanner; G Hanniffy, G Oakley; M Cordial, M O’Hara, B Murphy; B Carroll, J Bergin, A Hanrahan. Subs: D Hayden (O’Hara 60); A Egan (Carroll 62); B O’Meara (Franks 64); B Whelehan (Cordial 64); D Hoctor (Oakley 66).

LAOIS: P Mullaney (c); B Campion, Pakie Cuddy, C Healy; J Fitzpatrick, M McEvoy, J Hyland; J Phelan, J Young; P Russell, D Rooney, S Dwyer; S Lowry, Paul Cuddy, J Hooban.

Subs: D Cuddy (Russell inj 5); J Delaney (Campion 23); D Culleton (Dwyer 35); M Rooney (Hooban 43); Z Keenan (Lowry 54).

Referee: F Smith (Meath).