NHL Division 1B: Antrim get past Laois
NATIONAL HURLING LEAGUE DIVISION ONE GROUP B
By Daire Walsh
Antrim rounded off their enthralling return to Division One of the National Hurling League with a deserved triumph over Laois at Corrigan Park on Saturday afternoon.
Coming into this game with three points to their name - a surprise opening round victory against Clare and a hard-earned draw in last weekend’s clash with Wexford at the Belfast venue - they held off a spirited second period showing from the O’Moore County to achieve a fourth-place finish in Group B of the NHL’s top-tier.
With a combined tally of 14 points, Conal Cunning and Seaan Elliott were the main scoring threats for the Saffrons throughout the course of the contest. Additionally, Eoghan Campbell and Niall McCormack rattled the net for the Ulster men to ensure that Laois were ultimately kept at bay.
In advance of this tie, Laois were already guaranteed to face provincial rivals Westmeath in a relegation play-off - the Lake County are set to finish bottom of Group A, regardless of how tomorrow’s games pan out. In his second stint at the helm, O’Moore boss Seamus ‘Cheddar’ Plunkett has struggled to replicate the results that saw them keeping their head above water in 2020.
Still, there were signs of encouragement ahead of their forthcoming Leinster SHC meeting with Wexford. In a final-quarter cameo, PJ Scully claimed a commendable tally of 1-3.
Jack Kelly (0-5) and Ross King (0-3) were others to impress, and 10 players did manage to get their names on the scoresheet. It may have been a winless run through Division One for Laois, but Plunkett will continue to rally his troops for the remainder of the year with the championship just around the corner.
Antrim are brimming with confidence at the moment and it was no surprise therefore when they raced into a four-point cushion inside the opening 10 minutes. Cunning (two), Eoin O’Neill and Aodhan O’Brien were all on target, before Kelly and King eventually responded for Laois.
Ryan Mullaney cancelled out a Niall McKenna point for Antrim to keep the men from the east within touching distance early on. However, Antrim once again seized the initiative either side of the first half water break.
Courtesy of unanswered scores by Cunning (three), Paddy Burke and Seaan Elliott, they moved seven points in front on the half-hour mark. Despite Paddy Purcell ending this scoring sequence at the opposite end, Antrim asserted their authority to an even greater degree as the interval approached.
McKenna, Elliott and Campbell split the uprights to give the Saffrons a nine-point buffer. Laois found it difficult to rein in their northern rivals, but finally enjoyed a purple patch in first-half stoppage-time.
Ciaran Collier, Kelly and goalkeeper Enda Rowland (a long-distance free) pointed to reduce their deficit to six (0-13 to 0-7) at the midway stage in the action.
This provided Laois with great encouragement and, within 11 minutes of the restart, the gap had been cut down to a mere two points. Ryan Mullaney and Ross King got the ball rolling with quickfire efforts, before O’Neill popped up with another score for Antrim.
Yet, Laois were slowly building momentum as Kelly, Willie Dunphy and King (from a free) struck to keep Antrim on red alert. This was something of a wake-up call for the hosts and they responded in clinical fashion.
Cunning (another brace) and inside partner Elliott raised white flags to restore order for their team. Stephen ‘Picky’ Maher, Dunphy and Kelly did find the target for Laois moving into the final-quarter, but with substitute Ciaran Clarke and Elliott (two) doing likewise, Antrim seemed destined for a convincing win.
When a Campbell goal on 65 minutes propelled Darren Gleeson’s side into a 1-21 to 0-18 advantage, the prospect of a dramatic Laois fightback seemed unlikely. Nonetheless, Laois persevered and were rewarded with a 1-1 salvo from the impactful Scully.
Kelly and Aaron Dunphy points in response to further majestic contributions by Cunning left just two points between the sides, but the outcome was placed beyond doubt when McCormack shook the net deep into time added on.
Although Scully added a late free for Laois, it wasn’t enough to deny Antrim another morale-boosting victory.
Scorers - Antrim: Conal Cunning 0-9 (0-2 frees, 0-1 '65), Seaan Elliot 0-5, Eoghan Campbell 1-1, Niall McCormack 1-0, Eoin O’Neill, Niall McKenna and Ciaran Clarke 0-2 each, Aodhan O’Brien and Paddy Burke 0-1 each. Laois: PJ Scully 1-3 (0-3f), Jack Kelly 0-5, Ross King 0-3 (0-2f), Ryan Mullaney, Willie Dunphy, Stephen Maher and Aaron Dunphy 0-2 each, Ciaran Collier, Paddy Purcell and Enda Rowland (f) 0-1 each.
ANTRIM: Ryan Elliott; Damon McMullan, Gerard Walsh, Stephen Rooney; Eoghan Campbell, Paddy Burke, Aodhan O’Brien; Ryan McGarry, Michael Bradley; Niall McKenna, Conor Johnston, Eoin O’Neill; Daniel McCloskey, Conal Cunning, Seaan Elliott. Subs: Peter McCallin for Johnston (half-time), Ciaran Clarke for Daniel McClosky (43).
LAOIS: Enda Rowland, Lee Cleere, Sean Downey, Donnchadh Hartnett; Ryan Mullaney, Ciaran McEvoy, Stephen Maher; Paddy Purcell, Jack Kelly; Eanna Lyons, James Keyes, Ciaran Collier; Willie Dunphy, Ross King, Cha Dwyer. Subs: John Lennon for Lyons (half-time), Conor Phelan for Lennon (50), Aaron Dunphy for C Collier, PJ Scully for W Dunphy (both 60), Ciaran Byrne for Keyes, Frank Flanagan for Cleere (both 68).
Referee: John Keenan (Wicklow).