Late goals kill off Laois to earn Royal reprieve
Meath 2-16 Laois 0-14
In the end, the risks weren't required but they were worth taking for the potential spring in the step that Meath might benefit from in the coming weeks as they face into a difficult Division Two campaign.
As the clock ran down on this O'Byrne Cup third-round fixture in Pairc Tailteann and Laois cut what had been a three-point deficit in the 56th minute to just the minimum, the Meath players got word on the field of a UCD procession against Carlow.
The students were leading by 10 points at one stage, eventually winning by eight. Thus, on those terms, any win for Meath would have sufficed for them to advance.
But they weren't taking the chance that Carlow would steady the ship as they did, and switched into goal mode for the last few minutes, landing the first blow when Mickey Newman, a second-half substitute, drove a free through a forest of Laois legs parked on their own goal line but unsuspecting of such an audacious attempt.
It lifted the home side four points clear but it didn't stop there. On the other side of a Donal Keogan point, Newman took another quick free rather than taking the safe option of an available point, this time finding Graham Reilly who had run from deep to send another shot past Graham Brody.
It didn't take much to compute that the surge had booked Meath a place in the O'Byrne Cup semi-final against Louth next weekend.
"I was pretty confident that with the breeze, and kicking into the town end as well, we'd kick on. We did kick on and then let them back in again. But I was happy with the finish," said Meath manager Mick O'Dowd.
"Three games in seven days, you're hoping to get game time into inexperienced players, no injuries, and we're good on those fronts. And to get through to a semi-final, to get a fourth game, that's what we were after."
The value of another game wasn't lost on him afterwards as he seeks to integrate players into a squad that, he insisted, hadn't changed much since 2015 despite a raft of retirements, withdrawals and injuries that have removed up to eight players from the equation.
"It's not as changed as people think," he said. "There's about eight new players in the squad, there's 23 or 24 still there who we've been working with over last two to three years. It's reasonably settled.
"When you see Kevin (Reilly) and Stephen (Bray) going, and one or two others, you think there's loads of change going on. But there's not."
O'Dowd admitted that they had got word to the players about events in Carlow.
"Just in the last five minutes we started tuning in to what was happening between UCD and Carlow. We felt we needed a goal or two at the time so we went for them - actually a couple of points victory would have done it," he reflected.
But it was worth the adventure. Every little building block counts when you are trying to shake off the stigma of losing to Westmeath as they did last summer, and the excessive departure list that have created sufficient slivers of pessimism to nudge Kildare ahead of them as many bookmakers' idea as the most likely pursuers of Dublin in the coming year, despite their mauling in Croke Park.
"I didn't really notice that," said O'Dowd. "It's not something I can control or care about. We've had solid leagues the last two years, just haven't brought it into the championship. It's something we have to do this year."
Another solid league will require a lot of resilience and patience in Division Two with five Ulster teams for company.
There were a few positive pointers here. Harry Rooney continues to develop into a formidable midfielder and was dominant in the first half, his point being a stand-out moment as he carved open the Laois defence.
John O'Loughlin, as he did in last year's league match at the same venue, took over for a spell in the second half when Laois got a foothold, but Graham Reilly, Rooney's midfield partner, caught fire again and finished with 1-4 on top of the couple of frees he drew at close range for Sean Tobin to convert. Laois didn't really have an answer to his pace and directness.
There has been a welcome return for Cillian O'Sullivan, who has been out of action for two years with a back injury.
"Cillian, as everyone in Meath knows, is a real quality footballer. It's been very tough for him and for the team, to be without him for two years. To have him back is a real plus, one of the big pluses of the week."
O'Sullivan kicked two early points against the wind, didn't always hit his targets with his possession, but hinted at better things to come.
At one stage Meath led by 0-6 to 0-5 before Laois took better advantage of the elements to lead by 0-9 to 0-7 at the break. Meath hit five points in succession to establish a platform early in the second half but Laois worked their way back to parity again, 0-12 each.
Not surprisingly Donie Kingston was influential, firing over three points from play from an eight-point haul to starting building on a fine 2015.
"Donie is a great player. He really has all the skills. No more than anybody else, he is not a complete player yet. He's still a work in progress but he really is influential for us," said new Laois manager Mick Lillis who said exactly what you would expect from someone with a first week put down at the coalface.
"We got three games in the week, we had three 18-year-olds out there. A very young team. Lads who had never played senior football before. We have blooded them. They'll be an option for us in the future and it's a learning process.
"It's all about the league. It's all about the first game against Galway. Everyone is in the same boat," added Lillis, who estimates that he will welcome back up to six players, including Ross Munnelly and Colm Begley, for the league. But Padraig McMahon will not be coming out of retirement.
Scorers - Meath: G Reilly 1-4, S Tobin 0-5 (4fs), M Newman 1-0 (f), C O'Sullivan, D Lenihan 0-2 each, A Douglas, H Rooney, D Keogan all 0-1 each. Laois: D Kingston 0-8 (5f), P Cahillane 0-2 (1f), E Costello, N Murphy, G Walsh, G Dillon all 0-1 each.
Meath - P O'Rourke; N Judge, D Keogan, B Tormey; A Douglas, M Burke, J O'Reilly; H Rooney, G Reilly; S Tobin, C O'Sullivan, D Smyth; M Battersby, D McDonagh, D Lenihan. Subs: C Downey for O'Sullivan (47), M Newman for Battersby (50), S McEntee for Smyth (57), P Geraghty for O'Reilly (59), P Kennelly for Tobin (64).
Laois - G Brody; D Seale, M Timmons, P Cotter; A Farrell, D Strong, G Dillon; J O'Loughlin, J Farrell; D O'Reilly, D Kingston, N Murphy; P Cahillane, G Walsh, E Costello. Subs: T Collins for Douglas (33), K Meaney for O'Reilly (44), D O'Connor for Murphy (47), R O'Connor for Walsh (56), K Lillis for Cotter (BC, 58), M Scully for Costello (65).
Ref - F Kelly (Longford).