In fact were it not for the outstanding Joe Canning, Iarla Tannian and the defensive excellence of a few key players, we would be reading this morning of a glorious new chapter in Laois hurling.
This was a game Galway were expected to win with some comfort, an easy opening outing against a Laois side which in recent years has suffered a few dreadful batterings at the hands of some of hurling’s elite.
Even with eight points to spare Galway got out of Portlaoise yesterday by the skin of their teeth. It would be an insult to Laois though to say the Tribesmen were either unprepared or under performed. Quite the contrary in fact, says manager Anthony Cunningham.
“We were expecting that. Laois were very good, very gutsy... their tackling, their work-rate,” he said.
“They took some great scores as well from out the field. It’s great for hurling to see Laois back playing like that. We’re delighted to have got that strong game today. It will sharpen us up no end. Laois have been going very well this year and that was just what we wanted, really.”
Aware of the potency in the Galway attack, aware also of those big beatings suffered in recent years, Laois manager Seamus Plunkett set up his team very defensively, with just Tommy Fitzgerald up front, both corner-forwards withdrawn to reinforce the defence and midfield. It worked too, the Galway forwards utterly frustrated in the opening minutes, Laois ignoring their own reduced inside line of attack but banging over some superb long-range points to lead 0-4 to 0-0 after just seven minutes.
Galway were in trouble. Fortunately for them, however, they have the gifted Joe Canning in their ranks and four fine strikes from Joe had the champions on level terms after the first quarter. From there to the break it remained tight, Laois continuing to contain the Galway attack, centre-back and captain Matthew Whelan leading by example with two booming frees, plus a succession of fine clearances.
The home side led at the break by a point, 0-8 to 0-7, and left the field to a rousing ovation from their supporters in the 5,387 crowd.
But it could have been more.
Goalkeeper Eoin Reilly was going almost the length of the pitch with his puckouts, many of which were aimed down on the talented Willie Hyland in the left corner. Had they gone down the middle, had Laois reinforced their inside line only for those brief moments under their own puckouts they may well have profited more. But that’s just in hindsight. As it was, containment was what Seamus and his selectors had in mind.
Into the second half and though playing into that wind the Laois tactics remained the same. One up front, two dropping deep, everyone running their socks off. The outcome remained the same also, Galway still frustrated in attack though subs Damian Hayes and James Regan were beginning to have an impact while Joe continued to show his class.
Entering the final quarter there was still little or nothing between them, Galway nosing ahead for the first time in the match in the 46th minute (0-10 to 0-9), extending that to two points by the 57th minute (0-12 to 0-10). Then came the first goal, Tommy Fitzgerald with the finish after a Neil Foyle lay-off and suddenly, Laois were back in the lead, a shock on the cards.
It was short-lived though and again that man Canning was crucial for Galway. From the puckout Joe got possession, shot for goal, saved by Eoin Reilly, but on hand to bury the rebound was the speedy Davy Glennon.
Laois weren’t done and came back again to within a point in the 63rd minute (1-13 to 1-12). With Galway again teetering on the brink a second goal arrived for the visitors. This time another sub Aongus Callanan half-saved by Reilly but spinning agonisingly over the line. It finally killed the doughty Laoismen.
That man Joe Canning – where would Galway and Anthony Cunningham be without him?
“Joe had a fine game today but good defensive displays as well, good to see Shane Kavanagh back, Johnny Coen, Aidan Harte first start as well, James Regan who came on at half-time.
“We will be looking for more effort than that. We’ll be asking our forwards to push on, but great to see Joe in that form today. We want everybody to be hitting their heights this day three weeks [Leinster final].”
Scorers for Galway: J Canning (0-11, 7 frees), D Glennon, A Callanan (1-0 each), D Burke, D Hayes (0-2 each), N Burke, J Regan (0-1 each).
Scorers for Laois: M Whelan (0-5, 4 frees), Z Keenan (0-3), T Fitzgerald 1-0, S Maher (0-2, one free), J Fitzpatrick, W Hyland, B Dunne (0-1 each).
Subs for Galway: D Hayes for Donnellan (29), J Regan for Smith (35), A Callanan for N Burke (53), J Grealish for D Burke (66).
Subs for Laois: C Dunne for Burke (46), N Foyle for Brophy (49), B Duggan for Dunne (66), PJ Scully for T Fitzgerald (68).
Referee: J Owens (Wexford).