Callanan pushes Galway over line after huge scare
Heroic Laois give Cunningham food for thought GALWAY 2-17 LAOIS 1-13
THE cold, hard figures are as misleading as they are unrepresentative of the truth which underpinned a splendid contest in Portlaoise.
A seven-point win suggests a relatively comfortable advance for Galway into their third Leinster final in four seasons, but the reality was altogether different. Laois were in serious contention for a place in the final for the first time since 1985 until the 64th minute, when a goal by substitute Aonghus Callanan brought visible signs of relief to Galway faces.
It increased their lead to four points and enabled them to relax into a more structured rhythm than at any time previously. And with Laois tiring after expending huge quantities of energy in their feisty attempt to destabilise their highly rated opponents, Galway added four more points, countered once by a point from man of the match Matthew Whelan.
The centre-back and captain epitomised everything positive about the vibrant new Laois, who provided the second favourites for the All-Ireland title with a test few envisaged.
Galway boss Anthony Cunningham said afterwards that he was expecting Laois to deliver a big performance, but even he must have been surprised by the manner in which they maintained it at such a high level for so long.
After all, they had campaigned in Division 2A last spring where the pace, intensity and skill levels are way behind what Galway were experiencing in 1A. Yet, on a dull June afternoon which eventually gave way to rain, Laois matched Galway in almost every facet of engagement.
Indeed, they surpassed them at various times, combining technical excellence with a combative spirit that left Galway on the back foot throughout most of the first half and also for a long time in the second period.
Tactically, Laois got it right too, packing their own half of the field and leaving space in front of the Galway goal. It might have appeared a rather negative approach when playing with the stiff wind in the first half, but it worked even better than they could have anticipated.
Laois put down a clear marker straight from the throw-in when Stephen Maher pointed and by the seventh minute they were four points ahead, while Galway were still struggling to come to terms with the ferocity of the challenge they were encountering.
Laois' determination never wavered and once they realised that it was causing Galway enormous problems, they redoubled their efforts and were rewarded with their best first half in the championship for quite some time.
It ended with Laois leading by a point (0-8 to 0-7) and prompted their supporters in the stand to give Seamus Plunkett and his gritty warriors a stranding ovation as they headed down the tunnel. It was the least they deserved after working so diligently and effectively.
Laois had been mired in so much negativity for the past few seasons that it was heartening for the county's genuine hurling people to see the team doing so well in the most exalted of company.
Galway – or rather Joe Canning, who scored their four opening points – wiped out Laois' early lead in a five-minute scoring burst, at which stage it looked as if the reigning Leinster champions might settle into a routine which would set the agenda for the rest of the game.
Not so. Laois responded with a second wave of enterprise, scoring four points to Galway's one before the half-hour mark. They mixed the long and short game most intelligently and while Galway got the last two points of the half, it left Laois ahead by one.
They had also shot nine wides while Galway had eight for a combined total of 17, two more than the total score. That raises question marks about the overall standard, but the competitive element more than compensated.
Galway twice led by two points in the third quarter but found it very difficult to get anywhere close enough to test Laois goalkeeper Eoin Reilly. James Skehill was having a quiet time at the other end until the 57th minute when Tommy Fitzgerald was played through and he fired to the Galway net to leave Laois leading by 1-10 to 0-12.
O'Moore Park erupted in celebration as the shock of the year now appeared a distinct possibility but even before the cheers subsided, Galway were back in front after a quick attack from the puck-out yielded a goal. Reilly saved Canning's drive but Davy Glennon pounced on the rebound and swept the ball to the net.
Did Laois momentarily switch off after Fitzgerald's goal? Perhaps, and as so often happens in that sort of situation, the more experienced side exploits the brief lapse in concentration.
Despite that crushing setback, Laois were still very much in contention until Callanan struck for Galway's second goal. This time, there was no way back for Plunkett's gallant adventurers.
While Laois will be delighted with their performance, Galway head for the Leinster final amid much uncertainty. Despite Laois' relentless endeavour, Galway would have been expected to solve the puzzle much earlier than they did.
Canning was the only forward to play well in the first half and while subs Damien Hayes and Callanan did well in the second half, there was still a marked absence of fluidity in Galway's attacking set-up.
Iarla Tannian did well around midfield but the case for the defence remains unsettled since they had a numerical advantage, resulting from the manner in which Laois had set themselves up further out. In effect, there were few one-on-one battles.
In the end, it all came right for Galway but, as Cunningham acknowledged afterwards, there is considerable room for improvement.
In fairness, the same applied going into last year's Leinster final and they duly delivered a much-improved performance against Kilkenny.
And Laois? They've shipped heavy defeats in the All-Ireland qualifiers over the last two years but if they can build on yesterday's confidence booster, they will offer Tipperary, Clare or Cork a much tougher test than would have been expected at the start of this season.
Scorers – Galway: J Canning 0-11 (7f), D Glennon, A Callanan 1-0 each, D Hayes, D Burke 0-2 each, J Regan, N Burke 0-1 each.
Laois: M Whelan 0-5 (4f), T Fitzgerald 1-0, Z Keenan 0-3, S Maher 0-2 (1f), W Hyland, J Fitzpatrick, B Dunne 0-1 each.
Galway – J Skehill 6; F Moore 7, K Hynes 7, J Coen 7; A Harte 6, S Kavanagh 7, J Cooney 7; A Smith 5, I Tannian 7; D Burke 6, N Burke 6, C Donnellan 5; D Glennon 7, J Canning 8, C Cooney 5. Subs: D Hayes 7 for Donnellan (28), J Regan 6 for Smith (h-t), A Callanan 7 for N Burke (53), J Grealish for D Burke (66).
Laois – E Reilly 6; B Stapleton 7, D Maher 7, JA Delaney 7; J Fitzpatrick 7, M Whelan 8, G Burke 6; C Healy 7, J Walsh 6; S Maher 7, Z Keenan 7, T Fitzgerald 7; J Brophy 6, W Hyland 6, B Dunne 6. Subs: C Dunne 5 for Burke (46), N Foyle 5 for Brophy (49), B Duggan for B Dunne (66), PJ Scully for Fitzgerald (68)
Ref – J Owens (Wexford).