Tuesday 20 February 2018

Vincnet Hogan: Offaly's home comfort as neighbours fail to show

OFFALY 2-23 LAOIS 1-15 AN untypically amiable exchange in Tullamore on Saturday night where expected neighbourly tensions didn't amount to as much as a raised voice.

The principle of the hare and the tortoise applied as Offaly hurlers avenged a League defeat five weeks back that had plunged them into Division Two. Pace is of the essence in Championship and Laois just didn't have it here.

Actually, they didn't have much of anything as Offaly brushed them aside, strolling into an 11-point lead in just over half an hour with a minimum of fuss or exertion. It was the antithesis of what most in the 6,000 attendance had reason to anticipate.

Offaly-Laois may have a lopsided Championship history (Laois haven't beaten their neighbours in 32 years), but the meetings are traditionally hot and sparky. This was neither. It was about as a competitive as a dog-walk.

What on earth happened Laois? An inordinately long warm-up may not have helped (the throw-in was delayed by ten minutes, meaning they were on the pitch for more than 40 minutes before first whistle) but the raggedness of their hurling hinted at more fundamental issues. Quite simply, they looked like a team still bound up in winter garb.

Laois were slow to the ball, poor of striking and, most startlingly of all, lacking competitive aggression. Team manager Paudie Butler did not hide from the evidence.

"I have the heart for this and they (the players) have the heart for this," said the Tipperary man. "We know what we have to do and we're willing to ride it out. Our lads don't know what the highest level of training is. They couldn't. They've never been there. You can't know what real pace is without facing it. The training ground is idle. What you do there is never real.

"The League was great for us but we went back to club hurling and we're gone that yard slower than we were in the League. Laois need more experience of pacy games and, getting that experience, is the hardest bit. We were off the pace tonight, pure and simple."

Offaly, by comparison, rolled smoothly into Championship mode. Their touch was sharp and they attacked from clever angles. Right from the outset, corner-forwards - Brian Carroll and Damien Murray - had the beating of their markers and those outside ensured a bountiful supply. Given the absences of Barry Teehan, Brian Whelahan and Rory Hanniffy, this was more comfortable than Offaly could have hoped for.

The deception of a serious challenge lasted for only 11 minutes, at which point Robert Jones lobbed Laois's second point to leave the score at 0-3 to 0-2. But, from Brian Mullins's puck-out, Brian Carroll pointed. And, over the next 15 minutes, Offaly tagged on another nine unanswered scores.

"We weren't able to protect our two corner-backs at all," said Butler. "Offaly won seven frees in the first-half just by being a half yard ahead."

The gap was 0-14 to 0-6 at the interval and, within eight minutes of the resumption, Offaly had stretched 14 clear (1-18 to 0-7), Carroll goaling decisively in the 42nd minute after a great fetch from the sky by Gary Hanniffy.

Canice Coonan momentarily halted the rout with a stunning, angled 44th minute drive to the Offaly net, but there was never much threat of a revival.

Offaly coach Michael Duignan articulated the communal feeling. "I was surprised Laois were so flat," said Duignan. "You'd always expect a bit of an edge between Laois and Offaly. But maybe they were a bit over-hyped. That can happen. All the reports coming from Laois were good.

"And I was a bit worried that, physically, they could give us problems. But we were ready for the challenge."

None looked more ready than Ballyskenagh corner-back Mick O'Hara, who had a stormer while Championship debutant Kevin Brady enjoyed a calm, unflustered introduction at right half-back.

Laois, for whom Darren Rooney had to start at full-back, leaned almost entirely on James Young for their attacking ideas. And, while Young accumulated his customary big haul from placed balls, he never greatly troubled Niall Claffey on the '40.

Less than 15 minutes into the second-half, Brendan Murphy 'pulled' home Offaly's second goal after the Laois defence failed to deal with a Michael Cordial sideline cut. That goal broke the dam on Laois supporters' patience and they were immediately seen flooding for the exits.

Actually, Laois won the remainder 0-5 to 0-3, but it was token stuff, Offaly now strolling.

They now face the winners of Dublin-Westmeath in a Leinster semi-final and, despite a 21 points League trimming against the former in March, will be strong favourites on June 13. League hurling has never defined Offaly.

As Duignan read it: "Offaly and League has always been a strange mix. We've had ferociously bad results in the past. Our strongest team of the nineties was beaten here by Down. Antrim used beat us fairly regularly. And I remember Galway destroying us by 25 or 26 points one year in Ballinasloe. So you don't read that much into it.

"The bottom line is Mike MacNamara is improving people as hurlers. When he took over, the old team had broken up. Things were dismal. People were saying that Offaly were gone. But there's the makings of a nice team here now. We're not that far off."

Mike Mac himself was equally sanguine.

"Our target from the start of the year has been to take this famous one-horse race out of Leinster," said the Scariff man. "So, who knows? Whatever happens, we're going to battle it out to the end."

SCORERS - Offaly: D Murray 0-10 (8f); B Carroll 1-4; B Murphy 1-2; C Cassidy 0-3 (all 65s); M Cordial, G Hanniffy, J Brady and S Whelahan 0-1 each. Laois: J Young 0-11 (10f); C Coonan 1-0; J Fitzpatrick, D Cuddy, R Jones and D Culleton 0-1 each.

OFFALY - B Mullins; M O'Hara, G Oakley, D Franks; K Brady, N Claffey, C Cassidy; M Cordial, N Coughlan; G Hanniffy, Barry Whelahan, B Murphy; B Carroll, J Brady, D Murray. Subs: S Whelahan for Brady (45), D Hayden for Barry Whelahan (60).

LAOIS - K Galvin; C Cuddy, D Rooney, M McEvoy; J Fitzpatrick, P Cuddy, R Conroy; D Cuddy, J Walsh; C Coonan, J Young, R Jones; T Fitzgerald, L Tynan, D Culleton. Subs: E Meagher for Walsh (24), C Brophy for Conroy (55), J Dunne for Jones (56), F Keenan for Meagher (61).

REF - S MacMahon (Clare).

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