Hard-earned win for Wexford
Wexford performed better in defeat against Limerick one week earlier than in this hard-earned six-point victory over an improving Laois side in the fourth round of the Allianz Hurling League Division 1B in Wexford Park on Sunday last.
There was always a nagging fear in the back of the mind that the midlanders might pull something special out of the bag until the impressive Shane Tomkins finally put the issue to bed with just over 90 seconds of normal time left, finishing expertly to the net from close range after substitute Conor McDonald won Mark Fanning's puck-out and played him through with a handpass at the town end.
The fact that Laois were still hanging in there and were level with twelve minutes left says as much about Wexford's lethargy at certain stages as it does about their own obvious step up in form which ensures that they too will have a quarter-final clash to look forward to on the last Sunday of the month.
The game should have followed an inevitable outcome after Laois undid a lot of their good earlier work with a needless dismissal in first-half added time. Charlie Dwyer, who had picked off three fine points, gave Harry Kehoe a dig right under the nose of referee Fergal Horgan as they waited to contest a line ball, and his look of bewilderment after the inevitable straight red card was brandished was hard to understand.
Wexford led by 1-10 to 0-8 at the time despite playing into the wind, so they were warmly fancied at the break to pull away even though Laois centre-back and captain Matthew Whelan responded with two late points, one from play.
Yet, the home side did nothing to lift their supporters in a third quarter display which was frustrating to watch. Keith Rossiter initially took up the role of free man, later given to promising youngster Liam Ryan, and the early portents weren't great when the experienced Oulart-The Ballagh man sent a couple of aimless deliveries downfield in quick succession.
Ian Byrne did pick off two frees either side of a Tommy Fitzgerald score from play at the other end, but Laois were right back in the running when Stephen Maher's cross from the right in the 44th minute was controlled and expertly drilled to the net by John Purcell to leave just one between them (1-12 to 1-11).
Half-time substitute Maher quickly levelled matters from a free, but while Laois kept plugging away and put in a manful effort, they weren't able to edge their noses in front at any stage.
Ian Byrne, who was very prominent throughout the second-half, converted a monster free from the right touchline in his own half before Diarmuid O'Keeffe, now operating at wing-back, latched on to a Willie Devereux handpass to make it 1-14 to 1-12 in the 48th minute.
Byrne widened the gap to three from play, only for Maher to convert a brace of frees after Keith Rossiter and Harry Kehoe collected yellow cards in quick succession.
It was nervy stuff as another Byrne free was followed by two efforts from Laois substitute Ciarán Collier which left the sides level (1-16 each) with twelve minutes to go.
The extra man wasn't making any appreciable difference even with the benefit of the wind as well, but a burst of four points from four of the relative newcomers between the 59th and 63rd minutes did create a much-needed bit of breathing space.
Liam Og McGovern darted forward for a solo score to restore the lead before Keith Rossiter delivered a pass to Shane Tomkins who did likewise. Ian Byrne then had to be content with a pointed free after Laois defender Brian Stapleton threw his hurl to prevent what looked like a certain goal for him after good work by Conor McDonald and McGovern.
A short pull by the latter to his St. Anne's clubmate Diarmuid O'Keeffe saw the gap extended to 1-20 to 1-16, but Laois weren't going away just yet and responded with a pointed Stephen Maher free as well as posting a couple of wides.
Ian Byrne got on the break from a Mark Fanning puck-out to leave that four-point gap once more before Shane Tomkins finally sealed success with his first-ever Senior inter-county goal.
It had been quite an open affair from the start, with just two frees awarded, both to Wexford, in the first 15 minutes. Eanna Martin and Jack Guiney were replaced in the starting line-up from the Limerick game by Liam Ryan and Rory Jacob, and Laois showed they meant business early on as Neil Foyle, Paddy Purcell and Charlie Dwyer fired over the opening points.
However, Wexford's use of the ball was clever over the next few minutes as they hit back with scores from Ian Byrne (free), Shane Tomkins (two) and Jacob to edge in front for the first time.
Dwyer responded before the game's first goal arrived in the 13th minute at the Clonard end. It was created by Byrne who sent a superbly-weighted pass over the head of a defender, putting it on a plate for Jacob. He cut in from the right and drew the next back before placing the otherwise quiet Gary Moore for a fine goal (1-4 to 0-4).
Laois dug in though with the aid of the elements and picked off four of the next six points, while Mark Fanning was seen at his best in the 22nd minute when he dived to his right to keep out a rising shot from Neil Foyle.
Liam Og McGovern and Harry Kehoe - playing his 50th Senior game for the county - had got their names on the scoresheet during that period, but Willie Hyland, Ross King (two frees) and Charlie Dwyer kept Laois well in contention.
The loss of centre-back Lee Chin with an injury led to a re-shuffle, with Ciarán Kenny moving to centre-back, Diarmuid O'Keeffe reverting to the number seven position and Paul Morris coming on up front.
And the Ferns attacker announced his arrival with two neat points before clubmate Ian Byrne added two more, one from play, prior to that sending-off.
The way the second-half unfolded, with Wexford having to really earn victory rather than coasting, will ultimately benefit them, and we now look forward to their trip to Páirc Uí Rinn to face Cork on Sunday next. They go there safe in the knowledge that a quarter-final place is secured so this may help them to throw off the shackles and really test themselves against last year's beaten All-Ireland finalists.
It's the type of game that Liam Dunne and company should relish ahead of the last eight clash against opponents to be decided on March 30. And with only the top team to be promoted, wins for Wexford and Laois (over Limerick) would get us into the big time.
Wexford had eight wides while Laois struck eleven, with the home side getting 13 of the 25 frees on a day when yellow cards were issued to Matthew O'Hanlon, Liam Ryan, Keith Rossiter, Harry Kehoe, Neil Foyle, John A. Delaney, John Purcell and Brian Stapleton as well as that red for Charlie Dwyer.
On current form Laois look best placed to emerge from the round robin series to face us in the Leinster championship quarter-final on June 1, so we are suitably warned after this difficult encounter.
New Ross Standard