Croke Park romp a costly one for Offaly
OFFALY 4-22 ANTRIM 0-12 IN the back door maybe, but Offaly's quest to retain their Guinness All-Ireland hurling title has been dealt a double body-blow from which they will struggle to recover.
The champions annihilated a pathetic Antrim by 22 points in yesterday's Croke Park curtain-raiser, but at a very heavy price - a potentially fatal one.
Centre-back Hubert Rigney was rushed to hospital with a suspected broken leg, while fellow half-back Kevin Martin was reported to have lost the top of his finger.
Rigney's season now looks over while the odds must also be on Martin missing their semi-final clash with Cork in two weeks' time.
For all their undoubted panache, Offaly have always had a pretty threadbare bench and without two of their celebrated half-back line, they will face a gargantuan task curbing Cork's livewire attack.
Throw in Joe Dooley, who hasn't been able to train since the Leinster final defeat to Kilkenny, and no wonder manager Michael Bond was talking about a ``pyrrhic victory'' afterwards.
All the pre-match talk suggested that Antrim were a much improved team from last year. On this showing, the case would be dismissed for lack of evidence.
The gaping chasm between Ulster's best and hurling's elite has never been more graphically illustrated. Offaly won this quarter-final mismatch pulling up, and could even afford the luxury of 15 wides as they coasted over the finishing line.
There were a few moments to savour, notably John Troy's sublime stickwork to create the opening for his 31st minute goal, and in fairness Offaly cannot be held culpable for this farcical non-event.
They did what they had to do, punishing Antrim's lax marking to lead by 3-8 to 0-6 at the break. The first-half goals came from John Ryan, Johnny Pilkington and Troy, with Billy Dooley adding a fourth 12 minutes from time.
But it's difficult to see what Offaly have learned from this outing. The defensive frailties exposed by Kilkenny were never going to be fully tested by Antrim, even though Simon Whelahan, Kevin Kinahan, Martin Hanamy and Brian Whelahan looked much more assured yesterday.
The pre-match switch which saw Johnny Dooley go to midfield also paid off handsomely. When the game was at its most competitive, in the opening quarter, Dooley was constantly on the ball and moved it on very effectively.
He finished with four points, including two from play, and should start at midfield again against Cork.
But these positive points are completely negated by the injuries to Rigney and Martin.
Rigney felt the full brunt of a wild pull from Jackie Carson, who received a booking for his sins, and the anguished Offaly back was in such pain that he had to receive oxygen after being stretchered off after 26 minutes.
Carson later went to the Offaly dressing-room to enquire about Rigney's well-being, but while the gesture was appreciated it won't repair the damage.
Barry Whelahan replaced Rigney with Martin making a rare switch to centre-back. The position must have been cursed, because nine minutes after the resumption he suffered a horrific injury to his finger. Niall Claffey came in to fill the breach.
The consensus from the Offaly camp was that they would have preferred a two-point win if it meant Rigney and Martin were still on board. Even the great escape artists may struggle to get out of this one.
The game itself, for what it was worth, bore the semblance of a genuine contest for the opening quarter.
Antrim looked more organised, and better drilled, than the team which flopped in last year's corresponding fixture, and they actually opened the scoring through a Gregory O'Kane free.
Even the concession of a sloppy fourth minute goal didn't knock them completely off track. The score stemmed from a dropping ball sent in by Duignan; Troy challenged 'keeper Shane Elliott and the ball broke to Ryan who gratefully pounced.
It was Ryan's only meaningful contribution, and he was replaced by Billy Dooley before the break.
Antrim kept in touch with points from half-backs Seamus McMullan and Gary O'Kane, sandwiching another Gregory O'Kane free.
And even when Troy completed a fine move with a point after 18 minutes, Offaly only led by 1-4 to 0-4.
But then Pilkington goaled after 19 minutes, and it all started to rapidly unravel. Brian Whelahan, Paudie Mulhare and Joe Erritty combined to leave Pilkington in acres of space. He didn't need a second invitation.
Even the loss of Rigney did not knock Offaly offstride. After 31 minutes Gary Hanniffy made a soaring catch before releasing Erritty; he in turn freed Troy but the chance appeared lost when the Lusmagh man miscontrolled the ball.
Not so; in a split-second Troy flicked the ball up imperiously and shot from an impossible angle past a startled Shane Elliott.
Conor Cunning led Antrim's flagging resistance with three second half points, but it was a lost cause.
With Duignan now operating in midfield and Pilkington switched to attack, the Offaly points (and wides) kept flowing.
Between the 47th and the 60th minutes they scored 1-6 without reply to put Antrim totally out of sight.
Pilkington, Johnny Dooley, Pilkington (from a sideline cut) and Paudie Mulhare all pointed, before substitute Billy Dooley got in on the act by scoring 1-2 in the space of three minutes.
Troy set up the goal opening for Dooley and he finished with aplomb, but we shouldn't read too much into his cameo - by now the Antrim marking was criminally absent.
Likewise with the Offaly performance as a whole.
Delusions of grandeur would be a dangerous folly after this performance; one trusts Michael Bond will keep their feet firmly on terra firma.
Not that any one of the Faithful will be looking lightly on a A semi-final meeting with an in-form and rejuvenated Cork.