LAOIS 3-18 WESTMEATH 2-8
> Laois end losing run with a summer stroll
By VINCENT HOGAN
AN eleven-year watershed for Laois hurlers in Mullingar yesterday, but nothing to make the senses dance.
Their first Leinster Senior Championship victory since 1989 had a kind of artificial taste to it as Kehoe Cup winners, Westmeath, summoned honest lather but little else on a day so hot even the electronic scoreboard chose to melt.
``It's not a Machiavellian plot,'' a smiling Seamus Whelan, Westmeath county secretary, assured the assembled 1,337 in a tannoy message beforehand. But the locals could have done with one.
Laois never hurled with any real coherence, yet victory fell comfortably, much to the relief of new manager, Sean Cuddy. Mindful of Dublin's fraught Saturday evening in Carlow, Cuddy observed: ``At least, we're up and running. I don't think we could have expected any better than that really.
``We didn't have too many followers here and we could easily have got the kind of fright that Dublin got. But wouldn't it be shocking now if Carlow came along and beat us?''
Even with six Championship debutants, this Laois team is still built around the familiar tungsten spine of Bill Maher, Paul Cuddy, Niall Rigney and David Cuddy. They should, realistically, survive this preliminary business and secure a Leinster semi-final date with Kilkenny on June 17. If they don't, it will - most probably - be due to carelessness.
They were guilty of it often yesterday against a brave but hopelessly limited Westmeath team that could, incredibly, be playing Division One hurling next season.
In fact, Laois actually trailed eleven minutes into this game when Barry Kennedy brilliantly met Andrew Mitchell's delivery on the run to wrong-foot John Lyons in the Laois goal. It was the kind of goal that would have triggered odes, arias and symphonies in bulk had it come from the stick of DJ, Seanie Mac or John Troy.
But Barry comes from Castlepollard. He won't be hiring a tux for the Burlington in December.
More's the pity too for Kennedy looked a tidy hurler yesterday, knifing through the Laois defence ten minutes after the resumption only to be floored for the penalty from which Mitchell goaled to ignite the second false dawn of Westmeath's day.
Otherwise, the game had a sleepy air to it as Laois accumulated scores and the local crowd swayed between ambivalence and howling displeasure at the frazzled aesthetics on show.
Laois, typically, were strong up the middle where the returned Rigney grew with the game, especially when withdrawn to centre-half back for the second period in front of Paul Cuddy who was filling in for the injured Bill Maher.
``I pulled a groin and didn't feel like chancing it for the second-half,'' revealed Maher afterwards. Evidently, the ailment was infectious for Cuddy, too, aggravated a groin when pressed into service at number three.
All, admittedly, were peripheral matters as Laois put their poisonous winter behind them and stretched out for the clean air of summer.
They took just five minutes to cancel out Kennedy's goal, Fionan O'Sullivan poking the sliotar home in a dust-bowl after Westmeath goalkeeper, Paddy Walsh, parried a weak James Young shot into his path.
Ninety seconds later Young scored a second goal, slickly side-stepping Walsh after full-back, Martin Williams, hesitated fatally beneath a David Cuddy delivery.
That left Laois ahead by 2-6 to 1-2 after 18 minutes and, in a sense, the game amounted to little more than a swirling curiosity thereafter.
Laois did look vulnerable in the full-back line where high deliveries continually spawned more discomfort than looked sensible and Westmeath's Paul Williams was hurling with enough manly bite around midfield to keep the central exchanges honest.
Having trailed by eight points at the interval, Mitchell's 45th minute penalty brought Westmeath to within five (2-6 to 2-11). But their hurling invariably had less flow than fooster and - 17 minutes from time - they endured a sickening tumble.
Hurls flailed against the crossbar as Rigney's `65' ducked late and flukey into the net. It was the kind of goal big teams rarely lose. There and then, maroon chests imploded. Laois were nine points up and home.
Pointedly, the winners won the remainder 0-5 to 0-1 without really stretching. David Cuddy was now imperious on the `forty' while O'Sullivan was giving his third different marker of the day a soul-breaking safari down the left wing.
``A great start really,'' as Sean Cuddy put it. But the lingering images of the day were ones of clumsiness. Take the final cameo:
Brendan Murphy came sprinting out of the Westmeath defence, swivelled to clear and hit nothing but fresh air. The ball tumbled at Joe Phelan's feet in the left-corner. Joe bent to lift but his control was loose, the sliotar spilling almost sullenly across the end-line.
Cue Johnny McDonnell's longest blow of the whistle. A humanitarian in the house with sweeter timing than those around him.
MAN OF THE MATCH - Fionan O'Sullivan (Laois).
SCORERS - Laois: F O'Sullivan 1-3, J Young 1-3 (0-2 frees), D Cuddy 0-5 (0-2 frees), N Rigney 1-0 (`65'), D Rooney and J Phelan 0-2 each, P Cuddy, D Dowling and D Conroy 0-1 each. Westmeath: A Mitchell 1-4 (0-3 frees and 1-0 penalty), B Kennedy 1-0, O Devine 0-2, J Gavigan 0-1, B Williams 0-1 (free).
LAOIS - J Lyons (6), PJ Peacock (7), B Maher (7), J O'Sullivan (6), P Mahon (6), P Cuddy (6), D Dowling (6), C Cuddy (6), N Rigney (7), D Rooney (7), D Cuddy (7), J Phelan (7), A Coffey (5), J Young (7), F O'Sullivan (8). Subs: D Conroy (6) for Maher (half-time), N Lacey (6) for P Cuddy (56 mins), E Browne (not on long enough) for Dowling (63 mins), D Keenan (not on long enough) for Coffey (63 mins), L Tynan (not on long enough) for Rigney (65 mins).
WESTMEATH - P Walsh (5), J Kilroy (6), M Williams (6), B Murphy (7), B Williams (5), D McCormack (6), M Murtagh (5), P Williams (7), A Devine (5), J Gavigan (6), O Devine (6), A Mitchell (7), B Kennedy (7), M Carley (5), P Clarke (6). Subs: D Curley (6) for Murtagh (20 mins), D Devine (6) for Carley (47 mins), D Gallagher (5) for B Williams (52 mins), G Geoghegan (5) for A Devine (55 mins).
REF - J McDonnell (Tipperary).