LAOIS were stronger.
They were possibly fitter. They were more experienced. They were probably the better hurlers... and yet Tom Howard's Kingdom lived with them for long stretches.
This was a creditable performance by a bunch of young hurlers. A very creditable performance. Away from home, in the bitter cold, it was the type of day when a young team mightn't fancy it, might retreat into its shell, might use its youth and inexperience as an excuse for a below par performance. Not for one moment could you accuse this Kerry team of that.
They've got spine. They've got spirit. They've got bottle. They've got a chance of developing into a very nice side. A side that could possibly win the Christy Ring Cup, if not this year then in the future, a side that could challenge for and win promotion, again if not this year then in the future. In the short term they've got a chance of qualifying for a league final where they would almost certainly face Laois once more.
They might not win that final. On the evidence of Sunday afternoon they wouldn't. Equally so on the evidence of Sunday the Kingdom wouldn't fear Laois. They gave them pucks of it. Especially in the first half when the breeze was at their back. They went toe-to-toe with their more illustrious opponents in the opening exchanges. Stephen Maher pointed an early free for Laois. Tommy Barrett responded for Kerry. Zane Keenan got his side's first from play. John Griffin struck back shortly afterwards.
Kerry weren't going to lie down and let Laois tickle their bellies. They'd an early goal chance. Gary O'Brien found Aidan Boyle. Boyle kicked agonisingly wide. Laois were discovering that Kerry meant business. When Darragh O'Connell delivered the ball to Shane Nolan just a couple of minutes later a goal was a possibility once more. He found Boyle, Boyle scooped it across the face of goal and young Brendan O'Leary blasted it home.
Kerry led by three. Six minutes on the board. A dream start. Laois, to be fair, weren't phased by this. Over the next eight or ten minutes the O'Moore County reeled Kerry in. With Maher and Willie Hyland impressive on the flanks, they scored four on the bounce to lead the match once more. Kerry would draw level once more – Shane Nolan winning and a converting free on fifteen minutes – but after that Laois were in control of this game.
Kerry played some nice hurling. Showed some nice flicks and skills. They were also quite dogged at times. Laois, when in possession of the ball, had a tendency to hold onto it for too long, a tendency to over elaborate their passing, and Kerry tackled with tenacity to turn over quite a lot of ball. Griffin was instrumental in this, turning the tide and holding Laois at bay. The dam eventually broke when Tom Murnane fouled Neil Foyle for a pretty soft penalty, which was converted by Maher.
A four point lead was in no way flattering of Laois. Kerry felt their efforts deserved better. In the final fifteen minutes of the half they out-scored their opponents three points to two – Brosnan and Padraig Boyle hitting two of those from play. Kerry had every reason to be proud of their efforts at half-time. Yes they had the wind at their backs. That didn't mean they didn't have to fight for everything they got.
With that advantage firmly with Laois in the second half, they'd need to show more of that resolve. They did. Laois were on top – majorly so – and yet Kerry never accepted their fate. Willie Hyland had the better of Darragh O'Connell for a lot of the game, but that didn't mean that O'Connell didn't sweep in front of the Laois man when he could, it didn't mean he stopped trying to deliver quality ball in towards Boyle and Nolan.
Nolan was a real beacon for Kerry in the second half. He won possession, drew fouls, converted frees. The fact he didn't score from play shouldn't detract from his performance. When the going got tough he got going.
You can say that about a lot of Kerry's players. When Laois got their second goal the punters (the few that there were) headed for the exit. Job done. Nothing more to see. Move along. Kerry weren't willing to accept that as within minutes they'd fashioned a goal of their own. Dan Collins sought out Aidan Boyle. Boyle rose above Brian Campion and bundled the sliotar home. A final act of defiance by a Kerry team that doesn't know when it's beaten.
They went a step further when Nolan won, but missed, a late penalty. This, then, is a team that just doesn't quit.
An attribute that will, no doubt, stand them in good stead as the year unfolds.
Laois: Eoin Reilly, Brian Stapleton, Brian Campion, John A Delaney, Joe Fitzpatrick, Matthew Whelan (0-1f), Gearóid Burke, James Walsh, Brian Dunne (0-1), Stephen Maher (1-7, 5f, 1 penalty), Zane Keenan (0-5), Willie Hyland (0-2), John Brophy (0-1), Tommy Fitzgerald (0-2), Neil Foyle (0-1) Subs: Conor Dunne for Fitzpatrick, Andrew Collier (1-0) for Fitzgerald, PJ Scully for Brophy, Charlie Dwyer for Maher, Ben Conroy for Hyland
Kerry: Bernard Rochford, Rory Horgan, Tom Murnane, Patrick O'Keeffe, Tommy Barrett (0-1), Darren Delaney, Darragh O'Connell (0-1), Daniel Collins, John Griffin (0-1), Brendan O'Leary (1-1), Gary O'Brien, Pat Joe Connolly, Padraig Boyle (0-1), Aidan Boyle (1-0), Shane Nolan (0-7, 6f, 1 '65) Subs: John Egan for PJ Connolly, Diarmuid Walsh for P Boyle, Brendan Brosnan for G O'Brien
Referee: Sean Cleere (Kilkenny)