The sight of Tomás Waters going forward for the toss and then competing for the full 70 minutes proved very welcome in Fr. Breen Park, Abbeyleix, on Sunday, but there was precious little to enthuse about on the whole as Wexford suffered a surprise but deserved defeat to a hungrier Laois side in this Bord na Móna Walsh Cup Senior hurling encounter.
The opportunity of getting an early-season crack at Dublin in the semi-final was the prize on offer, but the Slaneysiders must now rely on the challenge game circuit to get them up to speed for their Allianz Division 1B League opener against Antrim in Wexford Park on February 15.
And while it's always dangerous and foolish in equal measure to read too much into results at this time of year, it was disappointing to note the lack of bite and drive from some players given that a match against the Dubs would have really stood to them next weekend.
The key score arrived in the 14th minute of the second-half at a time when Laois were clinging to a one-point lead (2-12 to 1-14), and it arose from an innocuous throw-in on the 'D' which ended with corner-forward P.J. Scully gathering possession slightly to the left of the posts and firing low to the net for his second goal.
One hoped to see a positive response from Wexford but instead they were outscored by 1-6 to 0-5 from that point onwards, although four goal chances were created but only yielded a measly two points.
Ian Byrne had a shot well saved before clubmate Paul Morris fired over in the follow-up, while Byrne later drove to the left and wide after a stray crossfield pass from Laois centre-back Matthew Whelan gave him a clear run at goal. Then in added time, with the game beyond them at any rate, a Joe Kelly effortwas turned over the bar by Enda Rowland before the netminder saved another attempt at a green flag from Shane Tomkins.
The fourth Laois goal, which well and truly wrapped things up, had arrived in the 61st minute as Brendan Reddin found Neil Foyle whose shot was saved, but P.J. Scully pounced on the rebound to force it home from close range and complete his hat-trick. That made it 4-16 to 1-16, and in actual fact the winners should have added a fifth major but Stephen Maher's pull veered off course.
The concession of 4-18 is never a good sign, but the high wides tally of 18 must be of equal concern. That's a combined total of 32 from the two Walsh Cup games played, and the fact that so many of Sunday's were from scoreable positions when the striker wasn't under pressure didn't go unnoticed.
It was ironic to witness, given the outcome and the number of misses, that all six forwards actually managed at least one score from play in the first-half. Wexford's first visit to Abbeyleix for a competitive game since the Waterford Crystal clash in November, 2000 yielded a plethora of chances for both sides, with Laois also chalking up 13 wides while conceding 17 of the 29 frees awarded.
The O'Moore county, whose last win over Wexford was in the Walsh Cup of 2011, took the lead on three separate occasions in the first six minutes, only to be reeled in each time by points from Benny Barron, Shane Tomkins and Daithí Waters.
Neil Foyle and Willie Hyland shared their first four points, but after the latter regained their lead they conceded the game's first goal in the eleventh minute. Ciarán O'Shaughnessy played a low ball from the right to Kevin Foley who took on his marker and got a shot away, and he was alert enough to gather the rebound when Enda Rowland kept it out and directed it to the net from close range (1-3 to 0-4).
Stephen Maher (free) and Joe Kelly exchanged points before Laois rattled the net for the first time in the 16th minute. James Walsh found Neil Foyle whose shot was saved by Mark Fanning, but P.J. Scully was ideally placed to latch on to the break and guide it home.
The Wexford response was strong as Benny Barron, Kevin Foley and Shane Tomkins hit back with points to regain the lead (1-7 to 1-5), but they gifted Laois a second goal in the 23rd minute. Stephen Maher caught a puck-out over the head of Ciarán Kenny in the right half-forward position and was allowed to solo unchallenged before planting the ball in the far corner of the net.
It was like Paul Browne's easy goal for Limerick in last year's All-Ireland quarter-final, with the defenders standing off and showing an unwillingness to leave their own direct opponents even though it was quite clear that Maher had only one thing on his mind.
Although Ciarán O'Shaughnessy levelled, Laois had their tails up and hit five of the next six points, with Wexford's coming from a Joe Kelly free after he was fouled. And the visitors trailed at the break by 2-10 to 1-10 after Ian Byrne became the sixth forward to score in the 32nd minute.
Podge Doran replaced O'Shaughnessy at half-time and went to full-forward, with Shane Tomkins coming out to the right wing and Joe Kelly moving into the corner.
A triple substitution midway through the third quarter saw both midfielders and right half-back Richie Kehoe withdrawn, and moments later Ian Byrne brought Wexford level (1-14 to 2-11) from his first free after replacing Kelly in this task.
The Ferns attacker had also been denied a goal by the first of many good saves from Enda Rowland after a Kevin Foley handpass in the 41st minute, with Laois proving more clinical when it came to taking chances and reaping the rewards. Indeed, on another day Byrne might have matched Scully's feat in scoring three goals, but it wasn't to be.
Still, with the scores on level terms and Wexford backed by the slight breeze, it was disheartening to see how they fell away after Willie Hyland put Laois back in front and P.J. Scully followed up with that all-important third goal.
Wexford: Mark Fanning; Andrew Kenny, Tomás Waters (capt.), Eoin Moore; Richie Kehoe, Pádraig Foley, Ciarán Kenny; Benny Barron (0-2), Garrett Sinnott; Joe Kelly (0-4, 1 free), Daithí Waters (0-1), Ian Byrne (0-3, 1 free); Ciarán O'Shaughnessy (0-1), Shane Tomkins (0-3), Kevin Foley (1-1). Subs. - Podge Doran for O'Shaughnessy (HT), Paul Morris (0-4, 3 frees) for Barron (44), Willie Devereux for Sinnott (44), David Redmond for Kehoe (44), Shane O'Gorman for C. Kenny (56).
Laois: Enda Rowland; John A. Delaney, Cahir Healy, Conor Dunne; Joe Fitzpatrick (capt.), Matthew Whelan (0-2 frees), Colm Stapleton; James Walsh, Joe Campion (0-1); Stephen Maher (1-6, 0-5 frees), Tommy Fitzgerald, Willie Hyland (0-4); P.J. Scully (3-1), Neil Foyle (0-2), Ben Conroy (0-1). Subs. - Tom Delaney for Walsh (HT), Dwane Palmer for Stapleton (49), John Purcell (0-1) for Conroy (50), Brendan Reddin for Fitzgerald (57), Brian Stapleton for Foyle, inj. (70+4).
Referee: Peter Burke (Kilkenny).