Laois 1-27 Westmeath 0-27
Division 1 Relegation Final
Laois retained their NHL Division 1 status for another year after an outstanding display from PJ Scully saw them edge out Westmeath in a thriller at O’Moore Park.
The Borris-Kilcotton man scored 0-17 – ten from frees, four from 65s and three from play – as he guided Cheddar Plunkett’s side through a nerve-jangling second half.
Westmeath had controlled most of the first half, leading by nine points at one stage, but the dismissal of Aaron Craig before half-time, and a goal from nothing by Ross King, gave Laois a footing in the game they eventually took advantage of.
The game started at a frenetic pace, with Paddy Purcell knocking over a point after just 15 seconds to give Laois the lead. Niall O’Brien had levelled proceedings before a minute had elapsed, and that set the tone for the opening quarter.
Cha Dwyer hit a quickfire brace, the first a brilliant effort from out on the left wing, before PJ Scully had a chance of a goal only to see his effort flash over Noel Conaty’s crossbar. That still put Laois three ahead after just four minutes, but they couldn’t keep the pace up.
Killian Doyle got a point back for Westmeath to steady the ship, and the slowly took control after that. Scully landed a 65 for Laois but Doyle, O’Brien and Aonghus Clarke all hit the target for Westmeath to draw them level by the 11th minute.
With the wind at their backs Westmeath set the pace, and Laois struggled to live with them. Doyle (free) and Scully (65) traded scores before Westmeath went on a run of eight unanswered points, with the Laois defence overwhelmed and unable to get a footing in the game.
Doyle got them on the move with four on the trot, two each from play and frees, before Niall Mitchell and Ciaran Doyle made it a six point lead. Unable to respond, Laois just fell further behind as Ciaran Doyle and Joey Boyle made it 0-14 to 0-6, PJ Scully finally breaking the run of scores with a pointed free for Laois.
Westmeath, as they had been doing, replied with interest as Niall O’Brien got his fourth of the half and Doyle got another, before Laois were thrown a lifeline. Cha Dwyer’s shot for a point held up in the wind, and Ross King beat Noel Conaty to the dropping ball before tapping to an empty net.
Westmeath almost responded with a goal of their own within a minute, as David Glennon was played in on the left wing, but Enda Rowland made a stunning point-blank save, Cillian Doyle pointing the resulting 65.
Laois needed to finish the half strongly but were given another boost in the form of Westmeath going down to 14 men, when Aaron Craig was sent off for stamping on Cha Dwyer when he was on the ground. PJ Scully and Ciaran Doyle traded points after that to leave Laois, outplayed for most of the half, just six behind and man up at 0-18 to 1-9 at the interval.
Laois restructured for the second half and started promisingly, as PJ Scully, Cha Dwyer and Willie Dunphy all pointed to get them within three.
Westmeath took a while to settle but once they did, they didn’t look like the side a man down, and Niall O’Brien and Killian Doyle continued to torment the Laois defence. Those inroads Laois had made were wiped out before the water break as Westmeath restored their three point advantage. Laois were just too loose at the back and not sharp enough up front to really press home either the wind or numerical advantage.
They needed a spark, someone to take control, and PJ Scully duly obliged. His accuracy from placed balls was simply superb, and as Laois went on a run of seven points without reply to take the lead, six of the scores came from the stick of Scully.
With the game now there for the taking, it was a tense final ten minutes, as Laois twice edged in front only to be pegged back by Westmeath on both occasions, Derek McNicholas and Kevin Regan the scorers on each occasion.
The tension in the closing stages was palpable, and thankfully for Laois it was they who held their nerve. Willie Dunphy put them back in front in the final minute of normal time before Jack Kelly found enough energy in reserve to get forward and point twice from midfield to make it a three point game. Laois safe at last? Not quite.
In the third minute of added time David Glennon was fouled for a Westmeath penalty. Derek McNicholas was entrusted with the responsibility, but his shot flew over the bar and so went the best chance his side had of forcing extra time.
Fittingly, Scully had the final act as his 17th point saw Laois to a three point win after a pulsating end to the game.
SCORERS – Laois: PJ Scully 0-17 (0-10 frees, 0-4 65s), Ross King 1-2, Cha Dwyer 0-3, Willie Dunphy 0-2, Jack Kelly 0-2, Paddy Purcell 0-1. Westmeath: Killian Doyle 0-11 (0-7 frees, 0-1 65), Niall O’Brien 0-7, Derek McNicholas 0-3 (0-1 penalty), Ciaran Doyle 0-2, Niall Mitchell 0-1, Joey Boyle 0-1, Kevin Regan 0-1, Aonghus Clarke 0-1.
LAOIS: Enda Rowland; Donnchadh Hartnett, Matthew Whelan, Sean Downey; Podge Delaney, Ciaran McEvoy, Fiachra C Fennell; James Keyes, Jack Kelly; Paddy Purcell, Charles Dwyer, Ciaran Collier; Willie Dunphy, PJ Scully, Ross King. Subs: Aaron Dunphy for Collier (29 mins), James Ryan for Whelan (half time), Ciaran Comerford for Keyes (58 mins), Eoin Gaughan for Dunphy (70 mins), John Lennon for Purcell (73 mins)
WESTMEATH: Noel Conaty; Darragh Egerton, Tommy Gallagher, Conor Shaw; Aaron Craig, Tommy Doyle, Aonghus Clarke; Cormac Boyle, Robbie Greville; David Glennon, Killian Doyle, Joey Boyle; Ciaran Doyle, Niall O’Brien, Niall Mitchell. Subs: Kevin Regan for C Boyle (half time), Josh Coll for J Boyle (half time), Derek McNicholas for C Doyle (49 mins), Shane Clavin for Shaw (56 mins), Darragh Clinton for Coll (66 mins), Shane Williams for K Doyle (72 mins).
Referee: Patrick Murphy (Carlow)