Late Laois revival seals top spot and a date with Offaly
Laois 1-20 Westmeath 1-17
Championship weather, championship venue but not much of a championship feel.
When Westmeath and Laois left O'Moore Park yesterday, both teams had done enough to secure at least one more day out.
As it turned out the winning and losing of the game was of little significance, leaving the place in a strange kind of flux not associated with championship hurling.
Immediately afterwards, both managers were already looking ahead to their next outing in a fortnight's time. For all of the huff and puff of the previous 70 minutes, it had little real impact, other than to sort out the top two placings in the group.
The first half was low on quality as nerves rattled. Westmeath, who had one foot in the Leinster quarter-finals coming into the game, looked to have the better of things.
Brendan Murtagh was a willing target man and central to many of the good things Westmeath did. And as the half wore on, they found their groove and a strong finish saw them take a 0-10 to 0-6 lead in at the break.
Zane Keenan started the day brightly, knocking over a superb sideline cut but things would go awry for him from there. He was rarely handed a simple free but struggled to find his range.
The Camross man had seven wides of his own by half-time as the teams racked up 20 between them in the opening 35 minutes. Still, Keenan recovered his composure and was a hugely influential figure as Laois turned the tables in the second half, finishing the day with a personal tally of 10 points.
The second half wasn't a minute old when Westmeath looked to have taken a major step towards winning the game.
Murtagh fielded Cormac Boyle's delivery before spinning his marker and lashing to the net to put them seven points up. It looked a considerable lead given how Laois had struggled in attack.
This was a crucial period for the home side and they rattled off three points to keep in touch, with Keenan leading the charge from midfield. Still, it seemed Michael Ryan's Westmeath were able to do enough to keep them at arm's length.
Laois had offered little in the way of a goal threat throughout the game, bar a Keenan effort that was well saved by Shane McGovern, but the introduction of Stephen 'Picky' Maher gave them a different option.
On 56 minutes, the Clough Ballacolla man showed great skill to gather possession and vision to find Charles Dwyer, and he finished brilliantly to the net. Seconds later, Dwyer raised a white flag and suddenly Laois were level in a game Westmeath had largely controlled.
In that period, Seamus Plunkett's team hit 1-4 to establish a three-point lead, but just as Westmeath were starting to claw their way back, they were reduced to 14 men.
Robbie Greville was shown a straight red for a pull across Brian Stapleton. Despite that setback they closed the gap to a point through Niall O'Brien but Laois had the edge now. They might have wrapped it up but Willie Hyland's goalbound effort rattled off the crossbar. Laois recovered the situation to tap over a point as the clock ticked into injury-time.
By that stage they had done enough to secure top spot in the group and a date with Offaly in two weeks' time. The late dismissal on two yellows of Shane Power had no impact on the game.
"I'm delighted we got the win," said Laois manager Plunkett, who saw Ross King go off injured with a serious-looking knee injury. "That's all we said we would do today - try and get the win and let the other results look after themselves. As it happened, the other results went for us but that doesn't make any odds.
"I said on numerous occasions I didn't mind who we played, whether it was going to be Wexford or whether it was going to be Offaly. It didn't make any difference. Those teams are fantastic teams."
Westmeath boss Michael Ryan was left to rue the concession of the second-half goal that opened the door for Laois as their thoughts turned to Wexford.
"We're disappointed. For a lot of that game, we were playing very, very well," said Ryan.
"I wouldn't say we were in control of the game but we had a lot of very good performances. In fairness to Laois, they came strong at the end.
"Their goal was a real turning point. At that stage we were four points up and you couldn't see a goal coming. But they won a high ball in and laid it off and stuck it in the back of the net.
"Overall, we're disappointed to lose the game but there's an awful lot of positives. I couldn't speak highly enough of our lads.
"Wexford are a very formidable side. I saw them playing a challenge game against Limerick about 10 days ago. They'll be very difficult to beat but we'll be difficult to beat as well."
Scorers - Laois: Z Keenan 0-10 (7f , 1 sideline), C Dwyer 1-3, R King 0-3, P Purcell, W Hyland, D Peacock, S Maher 0-1 each. Westmeath: B Murtagh 1-2 (0-2f), R Greville, D McNicholas, N O'Brien (2f) 0-3 each, C Boyle 0-2, J Boyle, N Dowdall 0-1 each.
Laois - E Rowland 7; J Delaney 7, C Healy 7, B Stapleton 7; J Fitzpatrick 7, M Whelan 8, J Campion 7; Z Keenan 7, D Palmer 6; C Dwyer 8, P Purcell 7, W Hyland 8; B Conroy 6, T Fitzgerald 7, R King 6. Subs: S Maher 8 for Conroy (44), P Whelan 7 for Purcell (52), PJ Scully 6 for Fitzgerald (58), D Peacock for King (63).
Westmeath - S McGovern 7; S Power 7, T Doyle 7, G Greville 7; A Craig 8, A Clarke 6, A McGrath 7; C Boyle 7, E Price 8; N O'Brien 7, D McNicholas 7, R Greville 6; A Devine 6, B Murtagh 8, D Clinton 6. Subs: N Dowdall 6 for Clinton (h-t), J Clarke 6 for McGrath (46), J Boyle 6 for Devine (52), E Corrigan 6 for Murtagh (59).
Ref - Alan Kelly (Galway).